North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Greenhouse Day

If you’ve ever visited Farmstead Creamery, you probably noticed the long, white plastic-film greenhouse lightly humming away next door.  Some folks don’t, asking, “what greenhouse?” even though it’s bigger than the creamery.  But if you’ve driven down Moose Lake Road on a winter’s evening, you’ve probably seen the golden glow of the grow lights and wondered what on earth those crazy ladies at the farm were up to.

Growing vegetables and tilapia fish, that’s what!  The symbiotic relationship, in tandem with beneficial bacteria that processes the fish waste into nutrients the plants use to grow, is called aquaponics.  The roots of the plants filter the water so that it returns fresh and clean to the fish, and so the cycle begins again.

Our beloved kale salad and mixed greens all come from the aquaponics, which needs tending multiple times a day.  But some days the system needs more of an overhaul, which is what occupied this last Monday (rather than barn muckin’ chicken pluckin’ or hay balin’).  This Monday was a greenhouse day.

First, there was the usual fish feeding and plant watering.  Mom harvested that day’s round of fodder (sprouted grains for supplemental animal feed) while I poked lettuce seeds into growing medium.  In a week or two, the cheery seedlings will be ready to plant in the system, waving their eager green and red-flecked leaves towards the sun.

In our aquaponics systems, there are three main types of growing systems:  two large rafts with floating rigid-foam panels that have holes drilled in them for the plant roots to reach through to the water below; NFT (nutrient film technology) trays like long rain gutters with lids that also have holes for the plants that access a thin ribbon of moving water at the bottom of the tray; and media beds filled with baked clay marbles that offer structural support for plant roots.  Each system works best for different types of plants.  The rafts are great for lettuces but also kale, Swiss chard, and bok choy.  The NFT works best for smaller plants like cut-and-come lettuce, endive, young basil, and brazing greens.  The media beds serve the needs of root crops like carrots, beets, and radishes, as well as offer a stronger footing for longer-term crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers.

Last fall, we expanded the media bed system by adding Dutch buckets (individual square, black pails for growing long-term crops) along the west wall.  A year later, eggplant bushes tower higher than me and tomato vines stretch across the ground.  It was a little tricky to work out the kinks, with the occasional bucket overflow and finessing the draining system.  Surely, there must be enough PVC pipe in the greenhouse to serve at least five homes!

This fall, we are expanding the media bed system again but with flood-and-drain beds.  Instead of a continuous inflow of trickling water with a continuous outflow through a drain pipe back to the sump tank, a flood-and-drain system is watered heavily but periodically and then allowed to drain.  It also allows us to place beds farther away from the water source (sump tank) and in places inaccessible for water return.

In short, any bare floor space that has more room than is needed for walking, washing, or care of plants is up for grabs for additional growing space.  That means yet another phone call to our rep Zack at Farmtek to order supplies.

“Can we use this 100-gallon reservoir as a flood-and-drain grow bed?” Mom asks.  We walk through the concept that involves a slotted PVC pipe at the base to collect excess water and draw it out through a bulkhead fitting to the drain.

“That should work,” Zach consents.  “If the plastic walls bow out too far, you could make a reinforcement structure from wood or metal, but it’s already built to hold the pressure from the water.  Let me know if this works!”

It used to be a huge grumbling scene with the delivery semi-trucks, but now that we’ve expanded the parking lot at Farmstead, turning around is much easier for them.  Still, when that ship ticket comes in, they probably draw straws for whose turn it is to roll down that gravel lane to drop off the next odd item we’ve purchased.  This time, three large white water reservoir tanks, 30 bags of the clay media (which likely weight 40 to 50 pounds each), and a few odds-and-ends fittings was the stack with our name on it.

“You got that greenhouse full yet?  What are you going to do with all those plants?”

“Eat them,” we grinned.  I already had baby cauliflower plants ready to go in, along with kohlrabis.  We lugged in the white tubs, over two feet wide and nearly seven feet long, and hauled in the bags of media.  The day was cloudy and cool, perfect for a long work-day in the greenhouse with heavy lifting.  Keeps you warm!

It took a little troubleshooting to get the white tank-turned-media-bed up on enough rigid foam to drain into a shorter blue bed for growing cut-and-come greens (hopefully including spinach!) before heading to the drain.  This system allows two rounds of plants to pull nutrients from the water before it’s returned to the earth. 

After finishing all the PVC hookups, we piled in the clay media pebbles.  Seven bags each in the big white tanks, a bag and a half each in the smaller blue tubs.  I also had seven Dutch buckets to refurbish, pulling out old pepper or tomato plants, washing up the tubs, sifting out the roots and debris, then refilling the tubs with a mix of old and fresh media, and planting new cherry tomato plants.  In the washing process, I’d pour off the rich, brown water from collected fish nutrient and pour that over the new media beds as an inoculant to give them a jump start.

Between the hauling, the washing, the sorting, the filling, the fitting, and at long last the planting, I smelled of clay dust, was soaked from the knees and elbows down, and had a few fresh scrapes on my knuckles.  But five new beds were ready to start growing great foods all winter—baby greens, zucchinis, cauliflowers, beets, radishes, and more.  It’s one step closer to personal and community food security during the long winter months by increasing the farm’s ability to grow its own. 

In just a few weeks, the brown clay pebbles will be lush with little green leaves—a testament to hard work on a greenhouse Monday.  I’ll bet that first bite will taste sublime!  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


Sprouting New Projects

Up in the frozen tundra of this year’s Wisconsin winter, there’s a micro-climate of lush and green, sheltered beneath arches of steel supporting strong but delicate plastic film—a flexing skin that allows the light to enter but holds back the snow and cold.  The land of aquaponics flourishing below, with tilapia swimming in their tanks and fresh greens reaching for the sun, is now well into its second year of production on our farm.

The clank of the door latch in the morning excites the first tank of fish, which glide to the surface and splash playfully.  “Breakfast, we want breakfast!”  The morning sunshine is sparkling on the water, and the air is moist and rich with oxygen—a stark change from the cold, snappy-dry environment outside.

Lately, we’ve been spending considerable time in the aquaponics greenhouse, tending to fish and plants, yes, but also because of building and starting new projects within the protective plastic walls as well.  Investing in such a heated space to allow for local, natural, and bio-secure foods to be grown right here all year has been a major financial leap for us, which means that every corner and cranny is ripe with the possibility for adding something that will grow more food.

Clay pots neatly tucked under the edge of the table-high NFT (Nutrient Film Technology) channels sport vigorous bushes of thyme, parsley, sage, lavender, cilantro, and edible violas.  Other pots commanding sunny locations hold thick-stemmed tomato plants that have grown chest-high.   Several times each day, I get to play “honey bee” with a vibrating pollination wand that shakes the clusters of canary-yellow blossoms.  Already the labors are showing there merit as a few little green tomatoes are beginning to form!  This is February—somebody pinch me!

Starting last summer, our Media Bed System (which utilizes the solid nutrients from the fish) began sludging up with too much material, flooding the beds and pulling down their side walls in a cascade of water and clay BBs that rushed across the cement floor towards the drain.  After a few relapses of this catastrophe, we knew that this piece of the system required an overhaul.

Following weeks and weeks of washing the clay pebbles by the colander-fulls and stocking the nutrient rich water in five-gallon jugs for the garden in spring, we were able to modify the side walls of the media beds, return the washed pebbles, and begin growing crunchy radishes, peppery arugula, and juicy beets again.

But it was apparent that the reservoir of solid-rich fish water siphoned for the media beds could serve a much larger growing area.  Eager to expand the winter tomato, pepper, and brassica production, we applied creative engineering with PVC pipe and hanging-basket brackets to rig a platform and irrigation structure for a new Dutch Bucket system along the east wall walkway.  Customarily used in hydroponic production (which employs chemical fertilizers rather than our tilapia friends), Dutch Buckets are a series of square, black pails filled with growing media.  Water drips in from above and then exits through a pipe below, allowing excess water to return to the reservoir to be recycled. 

With 30 new mini-pots to plant, we’re trying heirloom tomatoes, broccoli raab, Napa cabbage, kale, green and red peppers, and trellising cucumbers.  After a few hiccups (overflowing buckets, plugged drain spigots, fish scales in the water line), our new system holds vigorous and healthy plants eager to outdo their potted neighbors.  At times it seems you can watch them grow!  While the project is still in its experimental phase, already we are looking around our space, wondering where to expand with another length of Dutch Buckets.  Maybe over here would be a great spot for kohlrabi!

Our fodder-growing system has also been a happy success.  Sprouting wheatgrass from spring wheat for the chickens, ducks, and turkeys not only augmented their diets all year but also improved their behavior and health.  During butchering last year, we noticed phenomenally fewer heart and liver problems amongst the Cornish-cross chickens and standard white turkeys (both of which, because they are bred to grow fast, can often suffer in these areas).  Their skin was healthy and well-colored, there was more uniformity of size, and their insides smelled sweet and fresh—like fodder.

This has spurred us to increase our fodder-growing operation so that our fun new Kunekune pigs as well as our beloved sheep can enjoy this nutrient-dense feed all year as well.  Again using creative engineering, a good deal of PVC glue, and a mobile wire shelving system, we’re growing from our original 12 trays to an additional 30.  Stacked in levels of five trays across, the little spring wheat shoots reach for the sky, happy to turn water and sunlight into tasty, homegrown feed for healthy, happy livestock.

Sprouts are also delicious and healthy for people as well, which bring us to our third major new project in the greenhouse this winter.  Eventually, we can consign some of the fodder trays for sprouting, but for starters we’re learning the trade in a couple of seedling trays with a light layer of crunchy, white vermiculite.  To start the adventure, we chose the dwarf gray sugar pea.

The instructions said that a standard seedling tray would require two cups of seed (yes, sprouting does require quite a volume of seed), soaked in water overnight before planting.  Well, those seeds loved their water bath, and they swelled…and swelled…and swelled to bursting.  They puffed up so much that there was no way two cups were going to fit into one tray!  We grabbed a second tray and some more vermiculite and split the bucket’s worth in half.  There’s always a learning curve in farming.

Diligently misting with the sprayer hose, I watched over two weeks as white tendrils reached down into the medium, pushing the peas upwards.  Then from the same exit, little white nubbins began to reach upwards.  Slowly, the nubbins turned to green, then to leaves, then to leaves with stems, and then the addition of mini curling tendrils.  They smell fresh and sweet, like a springtime garden.  Now five-and-a-half inches tall, they’re just perfect for harvesting for this week’s CSA shares.  And they taste just like pea pods, perfect for salads, sandwiches, stir fries, and more!

It’s deliciously exciting in the aquaponics greenhouse this year, planting, harvesting, tending to the fish, but also expanding the operation in new and exciting ways.  Missing fresh greens from your garden this winter?  Come on over to Farmstead Creamery to pick up a tasty piece of the new project we’ve been sprouting in the greenhouse.  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


Farming for the Future

Let’s be honest, the current commercial system for producing, packing, and shipping foods is not sustainable.  On average, our food travels more than 1,500 miles before it reaches our plates.  It is not a wonder that lettuce in the store sometimes looks exhausted; I would be too after such a trip!  Shipping American apples to South Africa to be waxed and then shipping them back again makes little sense, as does the odd fact that it is difficult to buy a good potato in Idaho because avid exporting to other states takes the crop away from the locals. 

However, neither do northerners have to succumb to a diet of dried venison and wild rice to make it through the winter (though both are very tasty!), with a steady dose of squashes as the only vegetable.  Already, many regional farmers are extending their growing season with hoop houses known as “high tunnels,” keeping frosts at bay from leafy greens, carrots, and other crops.  Good old fashioned root cellars and newer methods of storage help keep fresh crops longer into the cold months.  Good keepers like apples, cabbages, potatoes, onions, and carrots can be savored from local sources well into March. 

But there is yet another method that is finally coming into its own that offers year-round local crop production as well as an added bonus—fish!  This method is called aquaponics. 

Aquaponics is a merging of aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (raising plants in water).  With aquaculture, the problem lies in what to do with all the fish manure (called fish emulsion).  In hydroponics, the trouble stands in finding a nutrient source, which typically is a chemical fertilizer.  Aquaponics, as pioneered by Nelson and Pade Inc. of Montello, Wisconsin, embraces the idea that bringing the two practices together (in tandem with colonies of beneficial bacteria) eliminates the need for fertilizers while improving the conditions for the fish as well.

The fish (usually tilapia because they are a fresh water fish that grows quickly and enjoys warm water temperatures) swim happily in large tanks.  The water from these tanks then flows through a series of filters and smaller tanks where the beneficial bacterial convert the nutrients into forms that plants can access.  The plants live downstream in a network of floating Styrofoam rafts, plastic channels that the water flows through, or beds of clay pebbles with drip lines.  Each growing environment supports different types of plants—from fresh greens and herbs to tomatoes, broccoli or radishes.  These plants clean the water as it flows by, and the water is returned to the fish tanks.  Once the system is filled, it requires 10 times less water per pound of produce grown than traditional field production.

What, local, organically-grown produce in the Northwoods all year?  That is right!  As we constructed our Creamery and Café, we built one of these aquaponics units housed in a majestic greenhouse alongside.  Instead of 1,500 miles, your salad can travel just a few feet from greenhouse to table.  Now that sounds more sustainable!

The aquaponics system has been an especially interesting project for my mother Ann, whose experience as a family physician brings acute chemistry savvy to the project.  Yet between maintaining a sensitive balance of pH and nitrites, there are plenty of hilarious moments when the fish splash wildly, eager for their breakfast or joyous celebration as the first seeds pop out of their little growing cells.

Sometimes, we are asked why tilapia are chosen for aquaponics systems, and there are multiple reasons.  The plants people like to eat enjoy a certain water temperature for growing, which happens to be the same temperature that makes these fish happy.  Other fish species like walleye or salmon require colder temperatures, which inhibit plant growth.  Tilapia are a wonderful fish for eating, especially when they are grown in such a clean, disease-free environment and fed high quality feed (which is mostly vegetarian). 

In our system, the lofty greenhouse is filled with blue tanks, in different sizes and proportions, networked by PVC plumbing lines that took months to connect correctly.  All this blue and white is now graced with green as the first generation of eager plants enter the drama.  At the Café, you can now enjoy the first baby lettuce crop—so tender and flavorful—without any of the guilt of shipping it from far-off places.

Initiatives like aquaponics systems are part of developments in agriculture that embrace goals of enhancing local food security and diversity.  The security aspect is multifold, from growing greens in a bio-secure, soilless environment (free from contaminants like E-coli, which cold-blooded fish do not carry) to building stronger local networks should long-distance shipping no longer be possible.  These systems add diversity, in the form of clean, wholesome protein (fish) and a rich array of vegetables all year, free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc. 

Our aquaponics system is a little world unto itself, snug in the greenhouse as the autumn winds howl outside.  Of course, the project did not start out this way, which was built mostly in late autumn and winter.  With our contractor Jon Sorensen of Venison Creek Construction, we assembled steel rafters on the concrete slab in hats and gloves, puffing steamily as we hauled each rafter into place and secured the parts together. 

The sides and ends were up, despite the instructions, and we were all set to put on the top covers…when it snowed.  Not just a little snow.  It was enough snow to keep the three of us digging for five hours straight, pushing and shoving the wet heaviness out the little back door.  That was more than enough of shoveling out the inside of the greenhouse!  It took a hearty crew of eight volunteers to hoist the top covers, which looked like great plastic sails.  Too gusty of a wind, and we might have found ourselves in the next county. 

At the time, it was hard to imagine that, only a year later, we would be growing optimistic little lettuces, ready for snipping and munching.  We hope to be able to offer some of the first tilapia for sale in November.

Because of the emphasis on bio-security (where the objective is to keep germs, pests, and other problems out of the system rather than trying to remedy the situation later), we cannot give tours of the facility.  Due to the transparency of the walls, though, it is easy to acquire an idea of the general workings of the operation from the outside, and we hope to develop a video tour for our website to give an “insider’s” feel. 

Systems like aquaponics, which are built to serve specific community food needs, are part of the future of sustainable farming.   This week, spend a little time learning how far your food has traveled, and see if there are ways to source your favorites closer to home.  Everyone’s efforts are an important part of preserving our beautiful environment, which has been so gracious in sustaining us with nourishment, shelter, and wonder.  And 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.

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