North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Holes

Let’s be honest, holes happen on farms.  I always get holes in my jeans from making hay—throwing bales, stacking, climbing, crawling.  There’s a sand-strewn hole just under the garage foundation where the thirteen-lined ground squirrels have taken up residence.  And there are all the quirky knotholes in the walls of the barn, where the light shines in and casts speckles and streaks in the morning.

There are holes in my chore boots, right where they fold when I walk, that lets in the morning dew and splattering rain, dampening the tops of my socks.  So much for keeping me warm and dry…but I still haven’t taken the time to replace them.  Seems like you just get something broke in when the holes start appearing.

Our intern Sam found the hole in the pair of thick, blue, rubber gloves used for dunking the chickens in the scalding tank during butchering.  Now and then, she’d have to pour out the hot water that had collected inside.  And, of course, there’s always the holes worn into garden gloves from weeding and transplanting, with sandy grit impacted under my fingernails or the sticky greenness from handling tomato plants. 

Yup, it seems that some things have trouble holding up to farm work.  Last summer, a particularly pointy rock managed to put two holes in one of the truck tires.  At first, it looked like a nail, but the fix-it garage saved the dagger-shaped stone after extraction for us to see.  What luck it was indeed to run over such a treasure wrong-side-up.  We actually kept the little bugger, to show when telling the story to family, but also to quarantine it from reappearing on the driveway!

Every Saturday during farmer’s market season, I load up the car with bakery, jams, produce, gelato, and other farm goodies.  The fold-up canopy rests on top, along with the tables and bakery bins.  Our first canopy, which lasted 10 years of active duty, had a pretty forest green and white striped top with a center peak.  The case that slipped over the top was equally striped, like a big Cat-in-the-Hat chapeau, minus the brim.  Well, as the 10 years were getting on, the case first wrinkled, then wore out at the corners, then tore down the seam, then simply disintegrated. 

Holes worn at the corner intersections of the canopy began to leak, so the poor thing was demoted from farmer’s market duty to chicken butchering shelter.  A few more years of limping the well-loved structure along, and UV degradation left the top with little pin-holes everywhere that dripped rain like a fine sieve.  But still, being thrifty, we kept the thing until at last all the aluminum bracing broke at the hinges and the canopy refused to open anymore.  That doesn’t make the structure terribly useful.

The newer, white canopy has since passed the “death of the case” phase, and lately I’ve noticed a few holes where the corners rub in packing.  So we start the saga again!

If there’s a hole in your bug net hat, the skeeders and the gnats will find it.  Please don’t tell me there’s a hole in my beekeeping suit!  If there’s a tear in your rain jacket, the water will seep in.  If there’s a hole in the fence, the pigs know about it, and if there’s a hollowed out hole in your winter squash, the voles got there first!  Holes, holes, holes, where do they all come from!?

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza a hole.

Almost all of Kara’s favorite farm shirts have holes in them somewhere.  One of my sweatshirts has some interesting holes from being in the compost pile for nearly a year.  It must have been laying in the bed of the utility golf cart when someone piled a bunch of weeds on top without noticing, dumping the whole load.  I looked everywhere for that blue sweatshirt!  Then, one day in spring, there it was on the pile, with the quack grass punching up through.  It cleaned up alright, though bleached in wavy streaks by the sun, with all the new holes.  Battle worn, perhaps, is an apt description.

But some holes aren’t funny at all.  I remember one day back when we were first restoring the farm, and I was just a little bean pole of a pre-teen.  Historically, it was customary for farmer’s to simply throw unwanted items into piles just outside the barnyard.  We’ve found three such piles on the farm, which we’ve cleaned up and hauled away over the years.  One was filled with old wheels, medicine bottles, a toy pistol, the sole of a shoe, and bent sickle bars, but the one where our first chicken coop was going was the old boards, rusty nails, bent shingles, and broken glass type.

We threw the big pieces onto the red trailer by hand and scooped up the small bits with shovels and rakes.  I remember picking nails and picking nails from the dirt, and even still the chickens continue to scratch up odd objects to this day—remnants of trash heap archaeology.  But at last, we were fully loaded and heading off to the dump.

I can’t tell you how many times I was warned to be careful about the broken glass.  Again, we had thrown off the big chunks and scooped away at the small pieces, but there weren’t enough shovels to go around, so Grandpa was kicking at the pile to help it along.  He didn’t say anything, but when we got home, he calmly asked Mom to look at his foot.  A piece of glass had sliced through his leather boot, right into the side of his foot!  And he had driven home that way!  It was a messy cleanup job to take care of that hole, so be warned.

But perhaps the happiest holes on the farm involve food.  There’s the hole sliced in the top of a pie crust, to let out the steam and watch for bubbly doneness.  There’s the hole made in the top of the mashed potatoes on your plate to hold the butter or homemade gravy.  And there’s the hole in the middle of the bagel or fresh pretzel, which I guess is there just to be there.  So yes, while most holes are bothersome, a few on the farm are just for fun.  Watch out for holes!  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

Summer on the Farm

It takes a brave soul to decide to spend an entire summer on a farm out in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest that’s run by three (possibly eccentric) ladies.  Of course, there’ll be plenty to do (!!!), lots of great fresh food (another !!!, especially since that includes gelato), and fresh air.  But it’s still a brave proposition and an adventure that young folks who intern on our farm have chosen to plunge into like taking a cannonball splash into Lake Superior.

Immersion learning is another name for it, right here in the living laboratory of our diversified homestead farm.

This year, our intern adventurers are Jacob Schultz from Northland College in Ashland, WI and Sam Harrington from Green Mountain College in Vermont—both sustainable ag majors.  Jake jumped in during spring break in April, returning in June just after the PBS filming.  Sam arrived earlier in June, just in time for piglets.  Both, alas and alack, are leaving us this week to return to their lives and coursework.

Last night around the dinner table after a day of butchering chickens, we were sharing stories and laughing over the summer’s accomplishments and moments of havoc.  Here are some of the memorable points Sam and Jake recalled:

Jake:  The day the lamb Junco was born, since he had both hypothermia and hypoglycemia.  We worked on him for five hours, warming on the block heater and giving electrolyte shots and enemas.  We were so exhausted, but Junco pulled through.  He had to be a bottle lamb because he was away from his mother too long after birth, but now you can’t hardly pick him out from the crowd. 

Sam:  Holding down the chicken tractors in the sudden storm that whipped up the evening after the PBS filming until Laura could pound in the T-posts to stake them down.  Then it was the treetops ripping off and landing right next to my bedroom window, ach!

Jake:  The long drive to pick up the colony of honeybees, only to come back and find out the queen was dead!  Then later having the chance to work the hives and see the colonies established and progressing.  Also, knowing that the bees liked me much better than some of the previous interns.

Sam:  Getting to be there when the piglets were born and sitting with Agatha when she was so friendly right before farrowing.  Then there was the one piglet I had to birth myself because Kara stepped away for a moment. 

Jake:  Being dragged off to splash in the mud puddles with Sam.  And the snakes.

Sam:  Ach, the snakes in the hay bales!  [Sam doesn’t like snakes…that’s an understatement]  I had to look at every side of every bale because it seemed like nearly half of them had snakes stuck in them, and then Jake had to pull them out.

Jake:  Yup, at least the chickens liked to eat them.  Throw the snake in the pen, and it was gone.

Sam:  And of course you got to make beer [one of Sam’s talents, which she shared with us this summer].  I kept telling you I make the best beer in the world.  And now you know for real.

Jake:  And seeing the aquaponics was really cool.  Everything from catching and filleting the big fish to introducing the new shipment of little fish.  And planting and harvesting in the greenhouse was awesome…way better than all the weed pulling in the garden.

Sam:  Ooh, but don’t forget tie-dye!  I really wanted to tie-dye Jake’s socks, but I resisted.  We still have to get our tie-dye Tuesday picture together, to go along with “chicken dish Tuesday.”

Jake:  Yeah, there’s been a lot of dishes, and a lot of great food too.  I’ve really loved the food, and the gelato.  That peanut butter gelato is awesome.

Sam:  I never ate so many pancakes in my life, or pizza!  Or pigeon either, never had pigeon before.  I’m still proud that I got it, though.

Jake:  How about the maggots in the back end of the truck, after we got rid of the garbage that one hot day.  At first we thought it was saw dust, but it wasn’t.  It was tons and tons of maggots.  I had to get them out with the power washer, and I was hunched over in the back, spraying, and there was no getting around it by to spray in an arc and get splashed with them.  I went as fast as I could, but it was no use.  The maggots went flying everywhere.

Sam:  Kara and I were the midnight milkers.  But Kara kept falling asleep, so she needed me to keep talking to her.  No matter what we did, we always got stuck milking late, and I’d still be there, cleaning up.  But then, I don’t think I’ve ever met a farmer that got enough sleep.

You can hear more of our interns’ stories this Thursday the 14th at our Annual Intern Scholarship Dinner (in tandem with Pizza Farm Night from 5:00 to 8:00 pm).  We’ll be joined by Tom Draughon and the South Shore Mountain Boys (bluegrass), a slideshow of images from the summer, and more!  All proceeds go towards scholarships for Sam and Jake, and it’s our way to celebrate the dedication and accomplishments of these fine young people who chose to spend their summer on the farm.

Are memories of summertime on a friend or relative’s farm part of your storybag?  It’s high season in the garden, the pizza oven is fired up, and maybe we’ll see you down on the farm before our handy helpers head off to school.

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

Unwanted guests

It happens.  No matter how harmoniously you try to farm with nature, some critters have it in for you.  If it’s not ravens running off with baby chickens, it’s the bobcat slaughtering your ducks.  If it’s not the rabbits in the pea patch, it’s the voles climbing the tomato plants to eat three times their body weight every day.  If it’s not the robins gorging in the raspberry patch, it’s the tent caterpillars in your apple tree.

Each year has its own challenges with pesky critters.  One year, the voles may be driving you crazy—running off with your mousetraps, escaping the dog, digging tunnels everywhere, hollowing out your melons and squashes.  The next year, you’ll hardly see a vole but the ground squirrels seem to be everywhere—tunneling under the garage, marauding the chicken feed, and shredding everything related to paper.

And then there’s woodchucks digging caverns under the barn, juvenile Bald Eagles terrorizing the chickens in their tractor pens, or coyotes howling in the night, spooking the newly-weaned lambs.  Goodness, you might even find a snapping turtle caught in the pig pen!

Sometimes, we do our best to live with/around the critters.  We’ve certainly raised a good crop of robins this year with the raspberries because the patch is too sprawled to cover with bird netting anymore.  But sometimes these unwanted guests on the farm call for an all-out-war.  I’m sorry if it doesn’t seem neighborly, but this is not a wildlife farm.  Go live in the woods, be merry, and prosper.  But if you start messing with my farm, watch out!

For years, back when we were mostly just visiting the farm as a getaway, woodchucks lived in the barn.  One particular fat and sassy fellow (or lady, I can’t be sure) perched on an open door in the hay loft, basking in the morning sun, surveying the realm.  Yet, while woodchucks have their own sort of charm (I suppose), their damages to the property outweighed their quaintness. 

While Grandpa took care of the woodchuck population after they collapsed the original hand-dug well in the pump house, restoring the north wing of the barn back to a working dairy shone a new light on the plunder.  Punching through the old stone-infused cement to see that the footings were solid, giant caverns were exposed that had to be filled, lest the whole wing should crack and cave in.  Wouldn’t that be an unpleasant experience in the middle of milking!  A considerable amount of concrete (and funds) went into those holes to make amends from the reign of the farm’s woodchucks.

So, when a teenaged woodchuck decided to move into the red barn early this summer, this was no laughing matter.  We’d been woodchuck-free for at least ten years.  This invader was certainly not welcome!  After finding his hole and watching the little nose pop in and out from under pallets of hay, we made a plan to catch “Charlie” the woodchuck.

Using cement blocks to form a chute outside the hole, we baited a rabbit live trap with peanut butter.  But we were concerned that, since Charlie had more length than a rabbit, he’d be able to get out after triggering the trap.  So we threaded a stick through at the very back and smeared the peanut butter on that.  This was set at the opening of the cement block chute.  And then we left Charlie alone.

“I don’t think we’re going to catch it,” our intern Jake mused.  “I don’t even know if woodchucks like peanut butter.”

But the next morning, when Jake peered around the corner of the barn and called in excitement, “We’ve got him!” it appeared that peanut butter was the right answer.  In fact, Charlie seemed to like it so much that he’d eaten well into the stick as well.  Later, Grandpa took Charlie for a ride out into the forest.

But the latest unwanted guest on the farm was a pigeon.  Over the years, we’ve worked hard to keep the farm pigeon-free, since they are renowned carriers of diseases for livestock.  Pigeons like farms, there’s usually feed to be found somewhere, and barns offer adequate protection from predators.  But take a stroll at any feed mill or in a city, and you can see that there isn’t any threat to the global pigeon population.

Usually, we try scare tactics first, involving rocks, the dog, screaming, and chasing.  Sometimes this is enough to convince the pigeon in question that our farm is no place to stay.  Other times, it isn’t.

About two weeks ago, a white-headed pigeon began appearing on the farm, mostly ranging for spilled chicken feed behind the tractors.  We’d chase after it, but the next day it would be back.  We’d throw sticks and rocks, and still it came back.  Lena would chase it for hours, but the little bugger just wasn’t learning.  It was a pretty thing, for a pigeon, but it was going to have to go.  No thank you fowl cholera, coccidiosis, or avian flu.

So we scrounged up Grandpa’s old 22 and waited for the bird’s imminent return. 

“There he is, on the roof!”  We had just finished picking the black currant bushes by our house when Jake noticed the speckled bird eyeing us from the top of our chalet.  Then came the pursuit, off the roof, out in the field, back to the roof, back to the field, over the barnyard.

It was our intern Sam who caught a wing-shot, and they brought the captive home.  And there came the end of the pigeon’s story, though we did eat its breast in a stir fry for dinner since no one had the heart to waste it.  None of us really wanted to kill the bird if we didn’t have to, but prevention is the first line of defense in maintaining livestock health, which is much more important than entertaining an unwanted guest.

But now chores have returned to normal, with a watchful eye for the marauding creatures that know when you’re not looking.  Hopefully, we’ll keep them at bay for another season.  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

 
 

A Night Out

“How come we don’t see you around town very much anymore?” is a not uncommon question.  “Don’t you girls get out and have fun?”

The honest answer is that, between the chores, the shop, the market, the garden, running a business, and all the other dimensions to what we do, it’s crash late at night and get back up early.  Something is always needing attention, and while one or two persons might be able to sneak away for a while (usually to run errands around town like a whirlwind), the chance for everyone to take a break and get off the farm is a very rare treat.

Rare, as in once a year…perhaps.

Most of our getaways are thwarted by farm happenings.  An invitation to a wedding reception has to be passed by because our first sow is farrowing, and our presence is needed for the birth of the piglets.  An evening waterskiing with neighbors is called off for much needed barn cleaning, chicken butchering, or CSA harvesting.  Just when you think you might have a moment, a storm blows in, and everyone’s out scrambling to bring in the animals and stuff loose items into sheds.

But at some point, you HAVE TO get away and have a little fun for your soul.  This last Sunday, Tom Draughon (who plays duet with me at the concerts at Farmstead Creamery) was performing as part of the Big Top Chautauqua show “Shanties and Shipwrecks.”  It was the debut performance, a non-pizza farm night, and the sheep had just transitioned to an 18-hour milking schedule.  If we timed everything right and there weren’t any disasters, maybe…just maybe…we could sneak off the farm for a night out.

This wasn’t a trip to see Willie Nelson or Trampled by Turtles.  This was local folks taking a trek to support other local folks making music and telling stories.  While on a much grander scale than our Locally Grown Summer Music Series, the Blue Canvass Orchestra shows at Big Top Chautauqua offer space for the creatives who call this area home to entertain, inform, and inspire.

Sunday was a hectic day at the creamery, with many seats full, a gelato case scooping near to empty, and the menu finally switched to all breakfast because we ran out of the lunch options!  Everyone in our crew was dragging after the long week and the drizzly morning that pushed folks off the lakes and into the cozy shelter of Farmstead Creamery. 

But then, in a last-minute lull in the hustle and bustle, we loaded the seats into the little red PT Cruiser (customarily emptied for hauling farmer’s market), locked the little chickens and sheep safely inside, grabbed the cooler we’d packed with food for the two-hour trip, hung out the closed sign, and hit the road.

It almost felt somehow dangerous, driving away with Mom, Kara, myself, and the two interns.  Would the farm be alright without us?  But the skies were clear, though it was chilly, and everything seemed settled enough.  Brave Mom was quickly left to drive solo as we all fell asleep on the humming, swaying drive.  That’s what happens when homestead farmers stop moving, you instantly conk out!

The sun glowed golden on the top of the trees circling the shimmering Lake Superior.  Orange-vested volunteers waved us into our parking space, and we marched the short climb up past the ski lift on the hill to the blue and gray striped canvass theater.  Admittedly, it felt almost off-kilter to be at an event we weren’t hosting, enjoying life on the other side of the front counter.  We chuckled together in line at inside jokes, let the wind catch our hair, and genuinely savored being “off duty” for the evening.

The lights came up with the band in sea-voyaging regalia, bursting with songs of voyages and shipwrecks throughout the ages.  The big-screen behind the action shared historical photos, paintings, and even an early video of life on a sailing vessel.  After curtain, I had a chance to chat with the crew, help Tom load instruments away in his car, and shared a picnic in the darkened parking lot, where we were the only cars remaining.  While the herd of listeners made their way down the hill, we toasted our night out, Tom’s opening night of the show, and our intern Jake’s birthday all-in-one.

And then there was the long, dark drive home, the last stragglers of chores like locking in hens and rams, and we collapsed into bed.  Next day’s plan was butchering chickens, though the dawn came far too early.  But the scramble to get out the door, the long haul north and back, and yet another shortened night—they all were definitely worth it for a delightful night out, away from the farm.

We did get the butchering done, and the shop is back open, so if you’re looking for someplace tucked away for an enjoyable “night out” from your place, maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.  Our next concert night is August 9th, in tandem with the Art Crawl!

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

Sudden Storms

The day even started hot, muggy, clingy.  A steady breeze helped keep the climbing heat from being entirely unbearable, but this was going to be one of those days where just keeping the animals alive and in the shade would be the major accomplishment of the day. 

We threw on sunhats and drug what felt like miles of electric fencing beneath the barnyard maples, red pines, and the spruces along the lane so that ducks, lambs, and ewes could have some shaded reprieve.  Less-than-pleased teenaged turkeys were marched into sheltered, shaded nooks by the chokecherry bushes, and we even spread a rug over the penthouse for the celebrity chickens at Farmstead Creamery to cast a bit more shadow.

And then we filled water buckets and filled waterers and filled kiddy pools, hosing off the pigs.  The heat and humidity was absolutely relentless, with heat indexes in the 100’s of degrees.  Finally, by 6:00 p.m., we had crested the wave of nature’s convection oven and celebrated by heading to the lake for a swim and a picnic supper.

Yet despite these relaxing moments, part of us still knew that such heat and energy meant that storms would be coming.  Just rain, we hoped, no drama…but that wasn’t likely.  The evening was still muggy and close, so it was impossible to batten down anything tight.  A cloud bank was encroaching on the sunset, which left us hoping that something would break the weather for a better northwoods day tomorrow.

It was about 2:00 in the morning when the first wave of rain hit.  Just rain, gentle, lapping at the south side of the house.  But behind the sprinkle, the sky was lit with strobe lights, flashes beating everywhere to the north and west—streaking in all directions.  I trundled down the dark stairs to grab our trusty IPod-touch for monitoring the aquaponics and keeping tabs on the weather.  Who cares what the predictions and hourly guesses might be, I wanted to see the radar!

In a great arch, sweeping from Minnesota to Canada, a thick band of yellow, orange, and red was headed our way.  The warning issued included penny-sized hail and 60-mile-an-hour wind gusts.  After surviving the last major wind event the evening of the PBS filming, which had tried to run off with the chicken tractors and tore pieces out of trees, this didn’t sound like something we’d want to find ourselves caught in way out in the pasture.

It was dark, no moon, and still thick with heat and humidity.  We threw on pants and shoes and began the mad hatch-battening that precedes dangerous storms on the farm.  Snagging the trusty old farm truck, we pulled up to the wood shed and began throwing T-posts into the back, the infernally heavy fence post driver, and a wad of baling twine. 

Pat-Pat, the first few raindrops splatted against my glasses.  I dashed through the lamb pen to turn off the fence energizer while Mom rounded the corner from behind with the truck.  Out in the middle of the pasture, the strobe light lightning was flashing everywhere, blinking with blinding brightness our frenzied work. 

In the back of my mind, I could hear the NOA weather radio voice saying, “Remember, lightening can kill.  If you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.”

“I don’t like it out here!” was Mom’s version of the situation.  “Where is my string?”  I grabbed another T-post and began pounding it at an angle to one of the corners of the chicken tractors so they could be cross-tied and anchored.

The pre-storm gust hadn’t quite reached us yet as we lashed layers of baling twine from tractor to post, threw our gear into the back end of the pickup, and hurtled over the bumpy terrain back to the barnyard.  Kara was there, closing the sides on the lamb barn.  It was a mad dash to throw anything loose into a building, wedge the new people door on the farmhouse garage (with no latch yet) shut, roll down the sides of the high tunnel, and stuff any lightweight lawn furniture or precious garden art objects into safe nooks and crannies.

“Come on Speckles,” I chided while Mom was cranking down the sides of the aquaponics greenhouse.  Little miss chicken thought we’d camp outside in the penthouse that night, but that wasn’t going to be a good idea with the oncoming storm.  With little ceremony, I opened the hutch, grabbed the sleepy hen, and stuffed her into the sheltered room above.  And then we also grabbed the rug before it became a veritable sponge.

With the threat of hale, we tried our best to squeeze as many vehicles into shelters as the rain began to pour.  Others, we moved away from the trees, remembering the limb-throwing events of the last storm.  Again, the NOA weather radio voice reappeared, “Damaging wind and hail.  Take immediate shelter in a central room in the lowest level of your home.”  Yes, I know, but how many farmers actually get to do this?

As the downpour instantly soaked my hair and shirt just running from the garage to the house, I was feeling quite relieved to have started with tying down the chicken tractors first when we did.  Huddled together back at our house, damp and panting, hoping we had everything tied down or squirreled away, we watched the radar.  A deep red finger had dipped down into the Chequamegon National Forest, heading our way.  But in that finger was a small gap, like an exclamation point—a gap which neatly drifted right over the farm.

I did hear hail on the skylight, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds.  Torrential rains followed, and some winds.  This morning, the air feels refreshed and the dry soils moistened.  Hopefully, we won’t find any damages to the farm or livestock this morning, making our two-in-the-morning scramble worth the effort and risk. 

Sudden storms can pop up at any time on the farm.  We’ve seen them head straight north in the middle of butchering chicken, watched frightful soup-green banks pelt in from the west while making hay, fled deep-blue banks from the north, and survived tempests blown in from the east.  But whichever way they come, angry summer storms can wreak terrible damages on homestead farms.  This round, we responded in time…and got lucky.  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

Monsoon Season

The first couple of years after we moved up to the farm full-time offered classic Northwoods summers—cool, moist mornings, a little rain in the afternoons, and maybe three days of 80 degrees.  There really wasn’t any need for air conditioning, and we hardly ever needed to water the garden.  But by the third year, a new normal had settled into the Northland—eight years of drought. 

Each summer, the drought would start earlier.  One year, it started in August, the next in July, then June, until it even started in April.  Imagine a year with hardly any April showers!  It was an environmental process entirely terrifying for a family that was trying to build a livelihood from tending the land.  What if the wells ran dry?  How would we maintain the animals?  Pastures dried up, trees suffered, and insect pests we’d never seen before gnawed their way through the land.

This year, however, things have shifted again.  Our long, cold winters reminded local old-timers of yesteryears, with piles of snow everywhere and prolonged cold snaps that made trees pop in the night.  Not too many years ago, St. Patrick’s Day was 80 degrees and we planted the garden in April.  What a contrast this year!

This spring was the classic, “Don’t put out anything until Memorial Day” that Grandma used to caution.  Soils stayed cool well into June, leaving everyone feeling their gardens are running a month behind schedule.  But at least we can say that we haven’t had to water this year!

Out of the polar vortex of winter and spring, we’ve instead climbed into what I’ve been teasingly referring to as “Monsoon Season.”  If the weather is predicting even a 20% chance, we’ll get hammered.  Sprinkles, rashes of rain, and downpours.  Lots of downpours.  Yesterday, while cleaning chicken coops, Mother Nature was having a grand time playing peek-a-boo with me. 

Now I’m sunny, now I’m raining, now I’m sunny, now I’m raining.

This spring, the creek that passes under our lane rose so high, we began to fear it might creep over the roadway or erode beneath.  It’s entirely fortuitous that we’re experimenting with plastic mulch this year in the garden or most of the beautiful soil may have been washed away.  I’ve hardly even touched the water in the rain barrels except for filling the ducks’ kiddy pool, and lately chore time has been pushed around based on when the latest gully-washer eases.

I’m not complaining—this is exponentially better than a drought—but it does seem that the new normal is anything but normal.  The other day, the morning air smelled cool and crisp of September, another morning feels like October, and then another like April.  Perhaps we’re just having a bit of English weather lately:  moderate with moisture often.  Can you see the different greens of Ireland yet?

But not having to water the garden comes with another tradeoff:  not being able to make hay.  This week, we’re going for it, as there finally appears to be a four-day dry stretch.  Typically, we’d be hoping to make hay near the end of June before the grasses have headed out.  But this year, there wasn’t any chance of that happening. 

Off in the forecast, there would seem to be a break coming, but then as the days drew near, NOPE, they’d change their minds and we’d be back to more rain.

The longer the hay stands before cutting, the less prime the nutrients, but there’s no worth to cut hay that’s been rained on.  It molds and composts within the bale, heating up to such high temperatures that barns will go up in flames.  We had a few wet bales once, which we tore apart that same afternoon and laid out in the lawn to cool before feeding right away.  We had to wear gloves to keep from being burned—that’s how hot those bales became so quickly.

On the other hand, the ducks haven’t minded the monsoon season one bit, dancing and prancing and preening in the rain.  The month-old ducklings are still getting used to it, running into their shelter in fear of the falling sky.  But once they’ve shed their golden fuzz for oiled, white feathers, their fear of rain droplets will be quite abated. 

“It’s good duck weather” Grandpa would say as puddles form everywhere.  Little kids on farm tours have loved the puddles too…though not the parents.  I wonder if I’ll be hatching tadpoles in some of them soon—the puddles have become such permanent farm fixtures this year.

I don’t know what it was about last autumn, but the weather seemed to wait for me to be all the way out in the pasture tending the turkeys in their tractor pens and then POUR!  I’d hunch up, crunch up, squint my eyes as the rain dripped down my face.  And then once I’d have everything packed up in the golf cart to head back, the skies would lighten and the rain would stop.  Really, was this some type of game?

This year, there’s less of a sense of tease and more of an “I’ll just rain whenever I feel like it.”  Two Mondays ago, we were butchering our first batch of chickens.  Huge storm clouds were forming that afternoon, sailing to the south, then the north, then the south.

“Plenty of room in the sky over there!” I told the clouds, then blew at them in a humorous attempt to keep them away (as if one little puff could do such a thing).  “You have to wait until we’re done!”  A couple of sprinkles was the sky’s reply, but the deluge did wait to hit the farm at nightfall, after we were cleaned up and the equipment was stored away.  At least nature can have some courtesy…when she feels like it.

Will our little monsoon continue, or will we find ourselves with another dry August?  It’s hard to say at this point.  If the new normal is anything but normal, then this year will remain a weather wildcard.  But hopefully all this moisture has filled the lakes and worked to replenish aquifers.  After this week’s haying, though, I’ll probably be reaching for the raincoats again.  But listen skies, let me get that hay crop in the barn first, ok?!  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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