North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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When it Gets Hot

There’s no way around it, this week has been so hot and muggy you could just about cut the air with a knife.  Last night’s rainstorm was a blessed relief, but now the air is heavy and close like the tropics.  All the humans are doing their best to stay inside for the air conditioning and drink plenty of fluids.  But for the farm animals, escaping the heat really isn’t an option.

This is one of the reasons we order our meat chicks early—usually starting in April—so that butchering is pretty well over before August.  These fast-growing birds have extremely low tolerance for hot, muggy weather, especially as they grow to maturity.  Congestive heart failure, belied by purplish combs and wattles, can lead to an early demise.  This is especially heartbreaking after all the time and care than has gone into raising these birds, only to lose them in the last days due to heat stress.

Currently, my portable chicken tractors are filled with teenaged turkeys of varying sizes.  Tarps tied over the top of the tractors offer shade, and the water buckets are kept full.  The turkeys pant with beaks wide open and spread their wings to allow air to flow past their bodies, but the heat is bearable for them.  Shade, plenty of water, and access to a breeze is really the best farmer’s can do in this kind of weather.

I was giving a farm tour earlier this summer (on another hot day) to some folks who came from the cities.  The sheep were hiding from the heat in the barn, lying down to discourage biting insects from eating their legs (so they ate ours instead while we observed the sheep). 

“Why does that one have its mouth open?” one of the ladies with fluffy golden hair and wearing high-heeled sandals asked.  “It doesn’t look good.”

“Well, as you’ve probably noticed, it’s pretty hot out today.  The sheep is panting, like a dog, to help cool off.  Dogs and sheep don’t sweat, so panting is a way to evaporate water and release heat.”  At this point, in my sweat-drenched shirt, I was wishing that panting might work for me as well.  But the lady did not seem convinced that what is suitable behavior for her Golden Retriever might be equally applicable for the domestic ovine.  Perhaps she wanted to invite the whole flock of sheep into her air-conditioned new car?

Interestingly, pigs can’t sweat either—except for the very end of their snout.  That is why it’s important to leave them a waller or large mud puddle in their pen.  The pigs roll and flop or sink into the water so that only the very top of their back, head, and snout sticks out.  They stare at you from this position with their beady dark eyes like half-submerged barnyard alligators.  Sometimes they’ll even put their snout in the murky water and blow bubbles…because they can.

The ducks love water, all the time, but especially on hot days.  They clamor into the kiddie pools and dip and duck, letting beads of water slide down their backs, wagging their tails like a dog and flapping their white wings.  Water flies everywhere amidst raucous quacking and splashing.  Then someone gets spooked and they all climb out in a hurry, only to run back again with renewed glee. 

But even with a pool full of water, ducks are dependent on having shade, so I keep them in amongst the pine trees by the farmhouse or beneath the spreading apples by the garage.  They lounge beneath the trunks, tongues sticking out as they pant, waiting for evening.  The ducks, like most of the animals on the farm, consume very little feed during the hottest part of the day.  They snarf down a bit in the morning, then wait until the coolness of evening for supper.  The rest of the day is consumed with doing anything to keep from overheating.

That’s our goal as well, as farmers, while doing chores and other necessary outdoor activities.  But sometimes you just plain old get stuck butchering chickens, making hay, or harvesting in the heat because it has to be done.  Thank goodness for a cold glass of water and a chilly basement to retreat to at the end of those projects.  The dogs agree—they happily stay there most of the day!

Spells of steamy-hot weather are a blessing and a curse for the garden.  On the one hand, sensitive crops such as lettuce, spinach, or peas have very little tolerance for high heat and humidity.  Those lovely heads of romaine, which you thought were just about ready for picking, suddenly sprout forth tall green spires from their core.  Known as “bolting,” the lettuce is doing its very best to flower and make seed (instead of grace your table for dinner), and the seed stalks can grow as high as me!

On the other hand, there are many garden crops that love—no need—these hot and sticky days.  Zucchinis love it, doubling in size so quickly it seems that you could watch them grow.  Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and winter squashes also thrive in the tropical environment.  Our 150 tomato plants in the high tunnel on the north end of our garden are producing boxes and boxes of red, pink, and yellow heirloom tomatoes.  Every time I turn around, it seems that something needs harvesting again!

Still feel that you are melting from the heat?  Here is a traditional English recipe for lemonade that might help you recover.

Summertime Lemonade

3 unwaxed lemons

1/3 cup sugar (or ¼ cup honey)

2 ½ cups water

Ice cubes

Sprig of fresh mint

Chop the whole lemons and puree in a food processor with the sugar until the mixture becomes a fairly fine pulp.  The processing helps pull the oils from the lemon for enhanced flavor.  Place pulp mixture in a glass jar and stir in the water.  Refrigerate overnight before use.  Serve in a pitcher with ice cubes, steeped with a sprig of fresh mint.  Enjoy!

***

However it is that you try to keep cool on these hot summer days, remember that the folks out there raising your food are doing their best to keep everything going, despite the heat.  Personally, I’m looking forward to autumn, but it looks like it’s going to be another hot one today.  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

 
 

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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 
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