North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

You’ve seen bloopers at the end of videos or TV programs—those scrambled up or misspoken scenes that were edited out of the film.  Usually, the actors burst out laughing at themselves in the ensuing pandemonium.  But life, unlike film, doesn’t come with an edit button.  So when bloopers happen, they happen!

Some of the funniest blooper moments with folks on the farm have been in relation to farm tours.  Kids and adults who haven’t grown up on farms can offer the quirkiest questions or comments, leaving me with suppressed chuckles and a valiant attempt to come up with a good response. 

Farm tours are an educational experience, especially for those who haven’t spent time on homesteads or been near livestock, and questions of all sorts abound.  But there are a few gems worth a good chuckle for sharing after the event.  If you find your comment in these excerpts, remember we’re laughing together, not at you.  I’m sure I had my share of awkward farm questions when I was starting up too!

This last week, in connection with Independence Day, floods of folks were coming to Farmstead Creamery, many of whom were interested in seeing the farm.  Over the weekend, it was nothing but, “We’re here to experience everything!  Milk the cows, ride the horses…”

I stood on the other side of the gelato case, frowned, and offered, “Well, that sounds wonderful, but we have a little problem.  We don’t have horses or cows on our farm.”  For many people, milking sheep is a foreign concept, so the assumption is that our farm will have cows.  In fact, the Wisconsin-cow connection is so strong that I’ve had people tell me that we’re not a “real” farm because of the lack of bovines!

“I think we should offer the kids a cow scavenger hunt,” our intern Jake suggested one afternoon.  “Here, kids, the one who finds the most cows gets a free soda!  That could keep them busy for a long time.”

There are also classic animal age mix-ups, like asking about “lamb’s milk.”  I patiently explain that lambs are sheep that are less than a year old, ewes being adult female sheep, and you can’t milk a mammal until it has given birth—hence sheep’s milk, not lamb’s milk.  This is usually met with, “I had no idea you could milk sheep…so with the goat’s milk…”  But I’ve already submitted a whole story on that confusion.

Poor Belle the donkey inevitably gets called a mule.  Maybe folks are only accustomed to seeing miniature donkeys and not the standard size.  She takes it well, probably because she’s so far out to pasture that she doesn’t catch on.  As I’m explaining about Belle’s important job as a guard animal for the sheep, terrified parents ask, “Really, there’s wolves and cougars up here?”  I shake my head in disbelief, wondering if the recreation industry is just really good at covering up anything that would steer parents away from the Northwoods, or whether these folks haven’t been paying attention to the news.

Some of the questions or comments, however, are just plain bizarre.  Earlier, when our intern Sam (who hails from Vermont) was trailing a large farm tour group, she was asked, “Why do they cut the beards off the turkeys?”  I was near the front of the group and missed the event, but she asked me later about it.  “I mean, Chocolate and Vanilla (our turkey Toms) are only two years old, and it takes a good four years for them to grow beards, but cut them off…really?  Is that a Wisconsin thing?”

Here’s another precious specimen.

Tour Guest:  “You said that your sheep are grass-fed, right?”

Me:  “Yes, that’s correct.”

Tour Guest:  “So, what do you feed them in the winter?”

Me:  “We make our own hay for winter feeding.”

Tour Guest:  “But then it’s not grass-fed anymore.”

I can’t help but wonder what this person is thinking, that we have covered football fields of pasture for them to graze in January?  That we buy sod from parts further south and lay it out for them?  Do they know what winters are like around here?!?  But instead, I pause, take a deep breath, and offer, “Well, hay is dried grass, so think of it as stocking up the pantry with good food for the winter or packing freeze-dried foods for an extended camping trip.”

At the start of each tour, I asked the little people in the groups to promise me one thing—that they won’t touch any of the fences because most of them are electric.  “And those fences bite and it hurts, so it’s better to know ahead of time not to touch them.”  Most of the time, the kids understand and the little ones hold mommy’s hand, ride on daddy’s shoulder, or want to hold my hands to be safe from the biting fences.  But last week, one precocious girl announced, “Oh, I already found that out!”

“Oh dear, what happened?” I asked, looking around.  We hadn’t even cleared the parking lot yet of Farmstead Creamery.  “Did you find the fence around the greenhouse?”

“Uh-huh, it felt like someone slapped my tummy really hard!” 

Whew, well, at least it was her tummy and not her head.  Sometimes those little people don’t look where they’re running.  The mother shook her head and laughed, “She always has to learn everything the hard way.”

“Why do you need so much fencing?  Can’t you just let the chickens run?” is another question that pops up from time to time.  While I’ve tried several approaches to answering the need-for-fencing question, the most effective so far has been to list this areas predator load:  foxes, coyotes, skunks, coons, weasels, fishers, bobcats, owls, hawks, ravens, and so on, and so on.  Honestly, if we didn’t keep things fenced and lock everyone in at night, we wouldn’t have any livestock.  It happens quite often that, at the Creamery, I hear stories about how someone “used to have chickens, but then the (predator of choice) got it and….”

In the end, despite the bloopers, the odd questions, the wondering where the men or the cows or the horses are, the confusion about milking sheep, and all the rest, hopefully folks take away a meaningful experience of our farm.  But remember, life doesn’t come with an edit button, so I’m sure I’ll collect a few more bloopers yet this summer!  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

Farm Tour

It’s a beautiful Saturday evening, the dragonflies are out, a few puffy clouds float by, and the breeze carries the scent of clovers and wildflowers from the pasture.  Folks are gathering at Farmstead with family and friends for one of our outdoor wood-fired pizza farm night, children giggling and watching our celebrity chickens, parents and grandparents chatting and resting at the picnic tables, waiting for a sizzly hot, smoky pizza made with ingredients fresh off the farm.

But Saturday pizza nights hold a special promise as well—a farm tour!  The family groups keep me busy between taking orders, pouring drinks, and guiding the gentle walk down to the barnyard to visit the animals and learn about our practices.  For some of the older folks, it’s a trip down memory lane to the days of growing up on a farm, while for the younger folks, this might be their first up-close encounter with livestock outside of video games like Farmville.

So let’s take a walk together on the farm, and I’ll show you around.  Make sure you’ve got a good pair of shoes on, and you might want some bug spray.  Here we go.

Continuing out from the parking lot of Farmstead Creamery, we walk down the lane, past the little creek that flows under the road, between the fir trees on either side that keep the snowdrifts tamed in winter.

“The farm was originally homesteaded in 1915 by the Fullington family, which is why the name is still on the lane.  Back then, this was called the ‘cutover’ after the logging was completed, all that remained were massive white pine stumps.  To clear the land, the Fullingtons had to pull out those stumps with draft horses and dynamite.  There is about 100 acres of cleared land on the farm, so you can imagine how much effort that took.  E.P. Fullington (a Civil War veteran, originally from Vermont, who was in his 70’s) purchased the original parcel with his son Lloyd, who was in his 20’s. 

“By the late 1960’s, however, Lloyd’s children had all moved into town with jobs, and no one was interested in taking on the farm.  At the time, my grandparents were looking for property as a family retreat.  Friends of theirs had hunting land across the way, and they told the family about the property, saying ‘and their north field might be just long enough to land your Cessna 182.’”

Just then, our tour passes the trees along the lane to arrive at the edge of the field, rolling off to the north and west with waving wild flowers.  It’s been some time since an airplane landed in the field, which is now rimmed with pasture fencing that shelters contended sheep busily grazing.  Belle, the guard donkey, waves her sonar ears and watches the group in the barnyard with interest.  Here we discuss rotational grazing methods, meet the chickens in their portable tractor pens, and see the laying hens pecking busily in the pasture around their Conestoga wagon-styled coop-on-wheels.

“The crown jewel of any farm, of course, is the barn.  Ours was completed in 1919, and we had it restored in 2001.  When you look at the numbers, four years to finish a barn (1915-19) seems like a long time.  Well, there’s a story.  Sometimes Germans (like us too) can have a stubborn streak, and E.P. and Lloyd got into an argument about building the barn.  Lloyd stormed off to town and the family didn’t hear from him for a year—he’d enlisted in WWI.  When he returned, they settled the differences enough to finish the barn.” 

Often there are lots of questions about milking sheep and the process of putting the dairy together, which was completed in 2012, while the kids are ecstatic to pet the friendly goat and sheep.

We step inside to see the hand-hewn tamarack timbers, visit Linden and Sweet Pea our celebrity goat and sheep, and peak through the window into our dairy.  Our heritage turkey toms are gobbling, so we head that way to meet the flock of cinnamons and coppers.  Sometimes, when kids come, I’ll catch our tom Chocolate, so they can feel the warm, bumpy skin on his head.

“Wow, I’ve never actually been this close to a turkey before!” is a common response as Chocolate blinks and shakes his head, waddle flapping.  I make the kids promise to keep quiet and move slowly, and we have a chance to peak at the baby chicks or turkeys in the coop as they nestle beneath their heat lamps.

This year, because of the Porcine Epidemic Virus, we simply wave at our special heritage pigs.  They wag their curly tails at us from the tall grass of their pasture.  The ducks run and splash beside the garden, showing off their comic antics.  We pause a moment to study the raised-bed gardens, rhubarb patches, and berries that are part of our CSA program, farmer’s market presence, and store offerings.

“There so much happening on your farm.  How do you have time for it all?” folks ask as we make the loop back towards the Creamery.  “I had no idea all this was back here.”

One little girl grabs my hand to show me a treasured (but battered) chicken feather she found in the yard.  “What was your favorite part?” I ask her.

“Ohh, the baby animals…and Sweet Pea…and Linden.”

Of course, there are all the odd or crazy questions too (I’ll save some of those for another day), the complicated dialogue about the particulars of sustainable agriculture, or the long rambles about how someone used to do things on a farm long ago.  The folks taking tours come in all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and walks of life.  Some pre-schedule private tours, while others come for Pizza Night Saturdays for the “family night” tour opportunity.

While it is a lot of talking by the end of the day, it’s special to have the chance to share the little piece of Earth we’re caring for with folks.  Looking for a fun and education opportunity to share with your family?  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 www.northstarhomestead.com

Sylvopasture

Every year, we have a similar struggle in the pasture for the sheep.  In the early part of the season, there’s too much grass, growing tall and lush at exponential speeds.  You can’t move the sheep through fast enough.  Then things peak off in July and by August, the land grows brown and dryer, the grass stops growing, and the sheep are miserable with the bright sun and heat.

They lay in little huddles, panting, wishing for a light rain to ease the late summer dry zone and green up their paddock.  But if we let them back in from pasture, they just loaf about in the barn instead of meeting enough hours of grazing time.  Even the milk production goes down during these hot, dry stretches.

In the age after the Cutover, the Fullingtons like so many other homesteaders in the area, labored for what must have felt like ages to tear those massive white pine stumps from the land in order to grow crops and gardens, build homes, and raise livestock.  When Grandpa bought the farm from the Fullingtons back in ’68, Lloyd made Grandpa promise that he’d never plant trees in the fields—another common story that became the fate of most farms in our neck of the woods.  After all those years of pushing back the forest, those fields and pastures were now thick groves of red pine plantations.

There were some scruffy, shrubby areas behind the barn and on the edges of the fields (former cattle grazing areas), which Grandma and Grandpa did plant in red pine, and they have since been thinned and tended as necessary.  Now they were thick and strong and in need of another round of thinning in order to give the remaining trees enough space and light to thrive.  But still, these trees are around the edges of the pasture, not out where they can help the sheep beat the late summer heat.

We’ve thought of building shelters on skids and pulling them along for the sheep.  We’ve looked at collapsible shade systems on wheels.  We’ve even thought about putting up solar panels in the pasture and letting the sheep graze beneath them (though, this one isn’t off the radar, we just need to work on the capital part).

But then Kara was invited to attend a workshop being coordinated by our UW Extension livestock agent Otto Wiegand on sylvopasture methods.  Coming from the ancient word sylvan (forest), the idea is to create an open-grove area (much like an oak savanna) where mature trees with wide spacing offer enough shade and wind protection to provide comfort for the livestock but still allow enough sunlight through to grow a crop of grass on the floor below. 

The full-sun pasture grasses would grow first and be consumed during the early part of the summer, while the sylvopasture grasses would grow slower and still be a viable and nutritious food source when it was time to move the livestock through during the hot season.  The system has been especially popular in areas like the Carolinas, though it is still a fairly new concept of pasture management for the Midwest.

Just about any type of tree can be suitable for sylvopasture, with common choices being nut trees, oaks or maples.  But sometimes even pines are used as well.

“I’ll want to caution you,” advised Jeff Groeschl, our forester during a meeting on the project.  “Red pines can’t take much soil compaction.  There’s this one guy down the road I’m watching who lets his cattle into his pine plantation, and 60% of the trees are now dead.  But then, he has it too heavily stocked, and you guys are raising sheep, so that’s a big bonus for you.”

Typically, when managing a pine plantation, thinning strives for an 80% shade cover.  With sylvopasture and the need for light to grow the grass, the desire is to create a 50% shade canopy.

“This is a new thing for me,” Jeff remarked as he poured over the resources Kara had collected from the conference and the internet.  “But it’s exciting.  You guys have a good vision with this and thinking towards how you want to use your land.  We can do this.”

Otto and Randy (a pasture extension agent) also joined us, Jeff, and members from the small-scale logging team as we crashed through the pine plantations, looking at trees and surveying the best management and thinning options.  Out on the far side of the field, undergrowth was sparse, but behind the barn were all these young maple trees like a thicket, which would have made it impossible for the sheep to penetrate.

As the loggers set to work taking out the trees marked in red and leaving the ones marked in blue, Jeff was scratching his head as to how we were going to create a good seed bed for the pasture part of the project.  First, the loggers were careful to take all of the branch debris to a separate “staging” area, so that it wouldn’t litter the pasture floor.

“And then,” Jeff mused.  “What we need is a grinder, like what they use under the power lines, to take out those little maples and work on the stumps.”

But where to find one.  He called all his timbering buddies, but no luck.  Then, one day after driving home from our farm, there came one running right down the road!  A company with a grinding rig just happened to be working a job in the area and could squeeze our little project in.  What a happy coincidence!

While neither crew was on the farm for very long, it was a bit of a shock for some of our clients to see logging trucks running up and down Fullington Road.  But as we explained that this was part of thinning the pine plantations to make shaded pasture for the sheep, eco-fears were abated.  Of course, the pasture’s won’t instantly be ready and it may be a five-year process to get them fully established, preparing the trees and removing the understory has been a huge step forward.

When working out in the hot sun in the garden yesterday, I was feeling ready for my own version of sylvopasture!  Sylvogardenening?  It wouldn’t surprise me if that exists as well.  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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