North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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Signs of Spring

After the recent snowing and blowing with cloudy skies, frozen ground, and not even a crocus to greet us, we are all in need of reminders that spring really will come this year.  Enough is enough of winter!  This time last year, the hens were already out on pasture, scratching in the new grass and chasing bugs.  This year, they stare out the little doors from their coop, thinking, “What?”

But there are a few signs of spring amidst the lingering winter.  Last week, I heard our first flock of Canada Geese (though they were heading south instead of north…can’t really blame them) and the first Sandhill Crane flew past with its haunting call just a few days ago.  These graceful birds seem to glide through the air so effortlessly, mocking my mammalian terrestrial fate.  Each year, a pair of cranes nests in one of our fields, raising their fluffy young amongst the waving grasses of the pasture.

The Mourning Dove calls beside the maple trees, and the Phoebe proclaims his return.  Even a flock of Juncos landed to catch a bite of grit from the driveway before heading off on their long journey.  Mom even saw a robin.  Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “Two snows on the robin’s tail.”  Well, we’ve had one already, so just one more?  At least we can be hopeful.

Signs of spring are also happening on the farm.  Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and herbs sprout from growing trays in our greenhouse.  Usually we start a bit earlier than this, but with the lingering winter, it was easy to see that we could be quite overrun with root-bound transplants begging to get into ground that could still be frozen.  Safe inside the greenhouse, the little optimistic plants push upwards, unfurling their first leaves.  Soon it will be time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and all the rest.  Last in line will be the squashes, which have the remarkable trait of growing three times as fast as their other garden companions.  Guess that’s why they start with a much bigger seed!

Our first lamb was born just a few days ago.  Mascara, who was featured in the shearing story, delivered a healthy little ram lamb with a gray speckled nose and coppery ears.  Born during winter storm “Walda,” the little fellow was named “Waldo” as he teeters around, wide-eyed at the big world, bleating pathetically, “Maaaaaaaam!”  The ewe gives here deep “momma baah” in reply and steps closer to comfort him.  The other ewes grunt as they stand, carrying the great weight of their soon-to-be-born offspring.  It won’t be long before the barn is filled with bleats and baahs as the yearly cycle turns toward spring.

In our house, two incubators hum away, rocking back and forth their precious cargo of chicken eggs from my ladies.  Brown and sometimes speckled on the outside, yolk and white is gradually transforming into the chicks that will peck their way free.  Wet and sticky at first, exhausted by the effort, they slowly muscle the courage to scuttle, then to stand, and then to walk in a matter of hours.  Within a day, they will be eating and drinking—nature sure is ambitious!

I love the warm softness of downy chicks, their scurrying feet, their inquisitive “cheep cheep” as they explore their world.  Baby farm animals in spring give us hope for a new start to the year, full of life and expectations.

Cleaning out the beehives is another right-of-passage for springtime.  It’s important to know how many of the colonies made it through the long winter and to clean out any dead bees or other derby that might have accumulated before molds infest the hive.  This year, one of the colonies pulled through, while the other either succumbed to the cold, mites, or any number of winter bee diseases.  Scraping and brushing, the hive was made ready for a new batch of bees, which arrived the day after the snow storm!

At least the sun peaked through the lake-effect clouds as I popped off the cork on the queen cage, replacing it with a miniature marshmallow.  This allows the worker bees to eat through the sugar, releasing the queen slowly—giving her time to adopt the hive as her own.  Tap, tap, tap, and the bees drop into the open hive around their queen, crawling down between the frames to explore their new home, filled with honey and pollen just for them.  Close it all up as quickly as possible to retain heat, and these ladies have a new start on our farm.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before the dandelions poke through with their golden faces—offering a vital first honey crop for bees in springtime.

Even if you’re not on a farm, there are still many ways to look for signs of spring.  Here are a few to get you started.

Pussy Willows.  Keep an eye out for the white puffs of pussy willows, which are often a sign that maple syruping season is over.  Later, they will send out pollen-laden stamens, at which point we like to say that the pussy willows have “pussed.”  These willows can be a great source of pollen for bees and other insects.

Spring Peepers.  Often wintering in swamps and other low-lying wet places, a warm spell can bring out the first of these small-but-loud frogs from their wintering slumber.  I always get a good laugh when driving down a rural road in springtime when the upland parts are quiet but lowland dips grow steadily noisy…peep, peep, PEEP, PEEP, PEEP, peep, peep.  Spring Peepers are another recognized sign that syruping season is coming to a close.

Buds.  Watch the tips of tree branches.  You can even sense their swelling, then a bit of color, then the gradual opening.  Oaks often hold a burgundy hue, while maples are a deep green.  Now and then I’ll spy a grouse up in the branches, feasting on buds.  Checking in with the trees each day to watch the buds develop is a mindful way of noticing the change to spring.

Bulbs.  Whenever the crocuses finally pop through the soil, offering their purple-blue cups with yellow-orange centers, it seems cause for celebration all of its own.  The little bulbs planted on the west side of the house always emerge earlier than the north-planted ones, and then there is the joy of daffodils and later tulips.  Bursts of vibrant color from spring bulbs shake away the gloom of lingering browns and grays.

Birds.  Notice when you first see migratory birds returning.  Some folks even keep a journal of spring bird sightings, which can help show changes in patterns from year to year.  Listen for their songs from the yard, the woods, or the marshes.  Be careful about feeding this time of year—the bears are awakening.

However you mark the coming of spring, be sure to enjoy it as it comes.  We can’t hurry nature along, but we can enjoy her shifting moodiness that comes with spring through baby animals, re-awakening plants, singing birds, and the first flowers.  Spring is coming, sooner or later.  I think we’re all ready to say goodbye to winter and usher in the coming spring.  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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