North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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Picking up the Birds and the Bees

There are so many things happening all at once on a farm in springtime—lambs are being born, the rubble of autumn’s garden is being transformed into new green life, chicks are hatching in the incubator or arriving at the post office, and new colonies of bees are being hived up for summer pollination.  The lambs on our farm come from our own ewes, and the chicks hatching in the incubator come from our own hens, but the other additions have to be brought in from elsewhere, and this is where the drama starts.

The first chicks we ordered came from a rare breed hatchery in Iowa, with a minimum shipping quantity of 25 day-old chicks.  Now, it might seem a terrifying proposition to send a tiny little chick through the jostle and jolt of the postal service, but this is possible because of a special feature of poultry biology.  Just before chicks hatch, they absorb the yolk into their abdomen, which gives the chicks enough energy to live for a few days without food and water.  This ability, when raised by a mother hen, allows time for their slightly younger nest mates to hatch out before the oldest ones require nutrients. 

So, box up enough little birds together, with comfy bedding and holes for ventilation, and they can be sent to their new home via USPS.  But wait too many days, and it can be stressful for the little loves.  The Iowa hatchery has the odd policy to ship on Fridays…which meant that it wouldn’t arrive in the Hayward Office until Monday, which is a pretty long ride for chicks.  But once we learned that the parcel of peepers spent the evening at the sorting facility in Spooner, we were able to speak to the manager there to CALL US (no matter what the hour) when the birds arrived and we would drive the hour to pick them up.

Day-old chicks need a warm, cozy environment—about 85 degrees.  When they’re hen-raised, this is under mom’s downy feathers.  But when you’ve received a box of 100 of them through the postal system that means your car needs to be at the ready.  So here we are with chick season, the call comes in at 1:00 in the morning, we’re up, dressed, and ready to go by 1:15.  It takes a good deal of radio and attempts at constant talking to stay awake all the way to Spooner.  Once we reach the sorting station, there’s only a few lights on, and all the doors are locked.  The buzzer has been broken and taped over, so that’s no help.  I pound on the glass door, wave my arms, jump up and down—anything to catch a bit of attention from the folks bustling about as they pass by the doorway to the next room.

I’m sure the guys standing outside the bar across the street must think I’m a nutcase.  But at last, I’m noticed, and the cheeping boxful of fuzzballs is ready for us to take home.  The car is roasting, my feet in my rubber muckboots are wet with sweat, and it’s a long, loooooooong roasting ride home trying desperately to stay awake!

Lately, I’ve been using a hatchery from Beaver Dam, WI, which ships out on a Monday, and I receive the chicks either Tuesday or Wednesday.  This week, the call came at 5:23 in the morning, with a hesitant, “And does an Ann live there as well?”

“Yes, that’s my Mom.”

“Well, we have a package for her…and it’s bees.”

Most post offices are accustomed to baby chicks coming through the mail (though not all of them know to help keep the little ones warm…one year we had a “helpful” person keep the box next to the air conditioner!!!), but there have been other postal adventures that have been less well received.

One spring, we were eager to branch into vermaculture—growing worms to turn food scraps into humus compost.  This could be beneficial for the garden and building top soils.  After considerable online research, we settled on the vigorous redworms instead of local night crawlers and placed an order through a reputable vermaculture site.  We clicked “submit” and waited eagerly for our composting crawlers to arrive.

Just like with the chicks, we received a call upon their arrival, though it was far from cheery spring fever or the “get these bleeping peepers out of here.”  It was something closer to, “Um, did you guys order some worms?  I think you’d better come and get them.”

So we dutifully took the drive into town, climbed the steps, and walked up to the counter.  A petite, sandy-haired lady was holding down the desk, but when we mentioned that we have come to fetch the worms, her eyes grew round and wary.  Without saying a word, she placed the “use next window” marker on her counter and seemed to fade away into the backdrop of boxes, carts, and letters.  After a pregnant and silent pause, another worker came half-snickering out of the back with one of those big, plastic post office crates.  “Here,” he offered.  “Just bring it back cleaned up when you’re done with it.”

Down in the bottom of that crate was our little box of worms, a corner half torn and a few stray wrigglers poking about on the floor.  Apparently, the desk lady had picked up the box and one had waved its little face in the air, which was apparently too much for her.  It became a running joke for years afterwards that one day we’d be ordering alligators through the mail!

But this week, we expanded to shipping bees.  Not by choice, but things do happen.  Traditionally, we’ve ordered packages of bees through our area’s beekeeper’s association, which pools resources to order packages by the trailer load from bee breeders in southern states.  On arrival date, all the beekeepers who ordered new packages descend upon the drop site to take their share home to hive up.  But this year, with the growing national honeybee shortages due to Colony Collapse Disorder, I wasn’t able to source any packages through the group.

So I went searching for another option, which meant joining a different buying group out of Baldwin.  So early one Thursday, intern Jacob and I hit the road at 6:00 in the morning to trek down HWY 63 to pick up a 2-pound package of Italian/Buckfast cross honeybees.  I hadn't been to this honey farm before, and we trekked up and down Baldwin searching for the “Honey” sign. 

Finally, I ducked into a farm implement store to ask directions.  The man at the front desk immediately picked up the phone and wasn’t interested in talking to me between show lawn tractors, as did a manager fellow in the room next door.  The folks at the parts counter faded into the background, and no one else seemed to be around.  Goodness, what did I look like, farmzilla?  Finally, I found a couple of poof-haired ladies in a room marked “bookkeeping,” who offered these bizarre instruction.

“Oh yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about.  As you go through Baldwin, on the right (she extended her left hand) is the Dollar General, and right there on the left (she extended her right hand) is the bee place.”

Feeling a bit more confused, we tried driving through town again.  On the left, we found the Dollar General (yes, it was actually on the left), but to the right was a dairy farm.  About a half mile further (mm-hmmm, just across the street I’m sure…) we finally came to the honey farm on the right, successfully picked up the package of bees and brought them home.

But to my great sorrow, upon opening the package to introduce to the hive, the queen was curled up dead in her cage!  Panic!  A hive is dead without a queen to lay eggs, and no other bee can take her place.  My overwintered hive, upon further scrutiny, had also lost its queen, so I was doubly queenless with no on-farm replacements.  Thankfully, the honey farm made amends by delivering a new, live queen a few days later, but in the heat of the moment, I ordered two Carniolan queens from Ohio via overnight delivery.

Well, if you’ve lived up here long enough, you know that nothing overnights to the Northwoods, no matter how much you pay for shipping.  This meant that, when neither the chicks nor the bees arrived on Tuesday, that Wednesday was going to be quite the day.  This returns us to the 5:23 a.m. phone conversation, with, “It looks like they’re bees.

Oh great, I thought, here we go again.  Those folks at the post office won’t want to talk to me EVER!  “Yes,” I replied calmly, “We can pick that up with the chicks too.”

The sandy-haired lady must have been feeling brave that morning (or was offsetting the insect issue with the cuteness of the chicks), because she brought them both to me at the back door (which does have a working buzzer).  The bees in their express package, though, were duly strapped into a miniature plastic postal crate.  I didn’t say anything, but I’m assuming that I’m also supposed to bring that one back, cleaned, when I’m done with it.  At least the bees were kept safe in their queen cages, ready to meet their new hives.

We cranked up the heat and trekked back to the farm with our box of chicks and our strapped-in package of queens.  “Looks like we just picked up the Birds and the Bees this morning,” we joked on the way home.  “No alligators yet, but we’re getting closer.”  Amidst all the cheep-cheep and the buzz-buzz on that warm morning drive, we also couldn’t help but feel like spring was truly here.  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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