North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Autumn's To Do List

I wake to another drizzly morning on the farm.  Even the roosters haven’t bothered to start crowing yet.  The air is cool, and I long to stay snuggled under the covers…just a bit longer.  It’s the first Saturday after the farmer’s market season, and everyone else is sleeping in, right?  But, alas, those rules don’t apply to farmers.  It’s already October, and there is much to be done before the snow flies.

And that little voice inside is reminding that there’s no use putting it off until spring—that crammed-full-of-projects-and-baby-animals time of year when leisure for sleep evaporates like puddles in August.  It’s time to start checking off items on that autumn list as fast as possible before the ground freezes.

The biggest chunk of the before-ground-freezes assignments focus in the garden.  October is the month for planting garlic, which means preparing a bed that has raised neither garlic nor onions nor shallots this year, picking out the best heads for planting, and getting down on one’s hands and knees with the dibble to push next year’s promise of a crop into the ground.  Then haul out old hay and mulch the bed nice and thick to protect the buried cloves from severe cold.

It’s also time to dig the last of the carrots and potatoes for the root cellar.  Last year, our potato patch was quite ambitious, since we were expecting to sell 50 pounds of potatoes each week to a local restaurant.  When that arrangement fell through, we found ourselves with more potatoes than we could imagine using!  Our CSA members enjoyed potatoes each week well into the winter, we sold potatoes at our farm store, and we served potatoes in pasties and pot pies.  And still there were more potatoes sprouting in the basement.  It looked like some story by Dr. Seuss!

This spring, therefore, we vowed to curb our potato overdosing habits and planted a patch about half the size of the previous year’s undertaking.  Box-fulls of those sprouting basement beasties were returned to the earth to grow anew (a practice that only works for one year before scab sets in), sprouting tendrils included.  With the help of our summer interns, we mulched the patch religiously and picked potato beetles.  Now our interns have returned to college, and we are left with the bulk of the patch still needing to be harvested by hand with a garden fork!  No small task, for certain…any volunteers?

Fortunately, harvesting the patch of winter squash can be checked off the list.  I was hoping to give the plants a bit more time with the warmer weather, but when the mice and voles decided to begin nibbling craters into the sides of a handful of buttercups, that was it!  We hauled out a hay wagon and began piling the green, orange, blue, and yellow squashes, pumpkins, and gourds on top.  Rolling the wagon into a shed keeps the precious harvest away from most gnawing creatures, as well as frosts.  The timing was fortuitous, actually, because the ensuing days of drizzly rain would have been the perfect setup for molds to attack any squashes still in the field.  Safely tucked in the shed, along with boxes of apples and palates of onions, garlic, and shallots, it’s easy to slip inside and snitch enough for supper.

And then there are the other sundry jobs of emptying out rain barrels and squirreling them away in the shed for the winter, pulling out the electric mesh perimeter fence and in-ground soaker hose irrigation system, and hauling the pump for the sand point into the garage before it freezes.

Autumn is also butchering season, reducing the summer population down to winter breeding stock.  The last of the chickens are ready, and soon it will be turkey time.  Over the years, we’ve butchered our own poultry in every kind of weather—90 degrees, wind, sleet, hail, even a snowstorm.  But everyone much prefers a sunny, crisp autumn day for the task.  Winter housing for poultry is a finite situation, and folks have already placed their orders for pasture-raised Thanksgiving turkey.

It’s also time for the winter-season piglets to arrive, courtesy our neighbor’s sows.  That means fencing needs to go up, housing needs to be winterized, and feed needs to be ordered.  Not long after that it will be time to sort the ewes into breeding groups and turn in the rams, preceded by barn cleanings on a massive scale.  Every time we turn around, something else gets added to the autumn to-do list—often the adding happens faster than the subtracting!

There are apples to pick and sauce and jellies to make, wild plums to gather and cranberries to make into jams.  The last of the basil needs to be whipped into pesto and frozen for pizza enjoyment all winter long.  Winterize the tractors and change the oil in the golf cart, then rip out the old garden plants and rake the leaves.  Either we’ll have to switch to a 24-hour shift or find a few more persons to help us “get ‘er done” this autumn.  What’s that you said, we have to add canning tomatoes to the list now too?

Just when you thought the growing season was winding to a close, there is yet one last push before winter truly closes in around the homestead and blankets the pastures in white.  But there’s also room for a little fun—crunching through the fallen leaves with our herding dog Lena, carving pumpkins into golden glowing Jack-O-Lanterns, watching the flock of Sandhill cranes dance in the pasture.  Autumn can be such a magical and fleeting time of year.  Soak in the colors now so they fill your spirit with joy and wonder through the wintertime.

I can smell wild plums on the stove.  Time to help make another batch of jam.  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

 
 

Changing Seasons

The morning must rises thick and dense, up to the tops of the maples and pines that surround the pasture.  The early sunlight beams through in radiant shafts, catching floating mist particles on their way.  It clings to my hair and face and hands as I shrug on a jacket.  Last night was just a hair’s breadth away from our first frost.

We haven’t seen a hummingbird in several days, though we leave the half-drunk feeders out, just in case a straggler passes by.  Their flits and chirps have delighted folks who visit all summer, but now these wee little birds must make the long journey south towards a warmer winter.  The barren feeders remind us that we probably won’t see the hummers again until Memorial weekend, when they’ll come buzzing at the windows, announcing their return.

The Canada geese are beginning to flock, sometimes headed north, sometimes headed south.  Their calls ring through the morning air like sirens calling all to collect and follow.  Even the cranes make infrequent appearances in the fields, flying higher and higher in the sky.  They are preparing to leave.

In the garden, the catch-up game continues from our late spring season.  The second planting of green beans are finally ready to pick.  And the zucchini will keep on stubbornly producing until they freeze out.  The raspberries are finishes, and the blueberries are winding down.

In their place comes the early season apples.  Crabapples are already falling off the trees, and we pick and pick and pick—hauling them back to the kitchen by the boxfuls for making jelly.  What we don’t get now to process we’ll rake up later as a treat for the pigs.  What with fallen apples, oversized zucchinis, and more, it’s a happy time for the pigs, to say the least.  As soon as they see the farm’s golf cart pull up with bags and buckets, they start dancing around, spinning in circles and grunting with glee.  Just wait until the under-ripe squashes need a home!

Some of the eating apples are ready now too—Duchess, Melba, Transparent, and a few others go into baskets and boxes.  The first apple pie of the season is always a special treat, just like the first rhubarb custard pie in springtime.  Studies have shown that the human body naturally craves fruits and vegetables about two to three weeks before they are seasonally ready—encouraging us to keep close tabs on the garden, the meadow, or the woods so as not to miss the proper harvesting time.  No wonder these first apples taste so good!

Random, mist-laden clouds pass through the otherwise sunny day, sprinkling the sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos in the garden with glistening droplets.  The mums are beginning to make tight buds, preparing for their autumnal bloom.  Marigolds sit pretty with their fiery yellows, oranges, and reds—matching the tips of a few maple branches I notice on the way in to town.

Some folks are warning that this could be a long, cold, and snowy winter.  But since I’ve moved up to Wisconsin’s Northwoods, someone has said that at some point going into each winter!  I guess all we can do is take what comes, harvesting and storing away the last of summer’s bounty as best we can.

It’s certainly jam-making time.  Enormous pots of deeply tinted black currants or choke cherries bubble on the stove or swirl round and round in our hand-cranked Foley Food Mill.  The oven is packed with glass Mason jars, while a second pot bubbles with lids and rings.  Don’t talk to Mom while she’s counting cups of sugar—you’re too distracting!  The recipe must be just right, or you’ll end up with a whole batch of chokecherry syrup instead.

While the chokecherries grow wild around the edges of the forest, we planted the black currants from cuttings given to us by a farming friend to the north in 2004.  Their first location became invaded by tag alders, so we moved the three survivors to the edge of our yard where they could still keep their feet wet near the creek.  Last year, there were plenty of fat robins and blue jays (guess where the berries went), but this year we hauled in our first jam-worthy crop!

Surely, three bushes shouldn’t take long to harvest, I thought.  But after pulling up branch after branch loaded with fat, black, juicy orbs, it soon became apparent that each one would take at least an hour to clean.  A few reinforcement pickers and six or so ice cream buckets later, the black currants were safely tucked in the fridge, ready for cleaning and cooking.  A distinctive, tart flavor, black currants will keep our toast topped with purple-black all winter.

Here is a treat of the season that may soon be harvested—spaghetti squash—along with a few compatriots.  Give it a try!

Spaghetti Squash Ratatouille

1 medium-sized spaghetti squash

1/4 cup white wine

1 small onion, diced

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 green pepper, diced

1 red pepper, diced

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed

1 zucchini, sliced

2 cans stewed tomatoes (or make your own!)

1 cup spaghetti sauce

Oregano, basil, and pepper to taste

Prepare and cook squash as you would any other type of winter squash (halve, remove seeds, place face-down in a pan of water and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, until fork tender). 

Heat wine in a skillet.  Sauté onions and garlic in the wine for a few minutes.  Add both kinds of peppers and cook until tender.  Add zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes, cooking until the mixture begins to thicken.  Add spaghetti sauce and stir together, then add oregano, basil, and pepper to taste.  Separate spaghetti squash strands with a fork and place in a large bowl.  Spoon sauce over the spaghetti squash strands and serve hot.  Enjoy!

***

However it is you mark the changes towards fall, take some time this week to smell the crispness in the air, walk the mist in the morning, and enjoy the first of the foods of autumn.  This morning, a rainbow shown through the mist, right over our barn.  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

 

 
 

The Glory of Autumn

Folks are on the roads these days.  Up and down the twisting, winding rural ribbons of pavement—stopping, staring, wondering.  I know this because some of these folks have stopped in the café lately, their eyes glinting, their faces smiling.  The Northland is filled with the wondrous colors of autumn:  fiery reds, lilting yellows, the last of fading greens, and new burnt umbers.  Not long and the unspeakable mahoganies of oaks will appear, along with the lacy, highlighter-yellow fringes of tamaracks.

On the farm, the sugarbush is a rush of golden orange and red—a prefect time of year to tie bright ribbons around sturdy trunks to mark which trees are good for tapping in the spring.  It seems like it will be an age before the season of dripping maple sap into the bucket—thump, thump, thump.  But for now, the cold time of year is coming.  Time to wind down the garden and rake up all the fallen bits of leafy glory. 

Autumn is an important time on the homestead.  Back in the days of one-room school houses out on the edge of the prairie, classes were in session during the summer and winter months only.  Spring and autumn were so occupied with either planting or harvesting that every hand was out in the field or in the barn threshing, baling, storing away for the year.  The creaky cider press was hard at work, turning crunchy apples into an irresistible, frothy juice—cloudy as a witch’s brew, sweet and tangy at the same time.  Cider could be stopped up in barrels and fermented, which kept considerably longer in the pioneer days before refrigeration than whole apples could have hoped to manage.

Autumn chore time comes in stages.  The first is the “coat” stage, where the morning chill requires an extra layer on the arms and torso.  This is followed by the “hat” stage, which is usually accompanied by the transition from any old coat to a Carhart or hand-me-down (down) jacket.  Finally, the cold gets the best of us, and it’s the “glove” stage.  When temperatures really plummet, the gloves are switched for mittens, so the fingers can share some heat.  Either way, there still is an on-again, off-again relationship to gloves for autumn chores, with those tricky miss-matched latches on barn doors and chicken coops that just will not cooperate without the use of bare hands.  Yet, we manage somehow—shoving fingers in pockets or under arms to thaw their icy edges.

The sheep’s breath billows steamy in the mornings.  They look at me and baah, wondering where all the lush summer grass has gone.  Turkeys chase intrepid grasshoppers that make the bold mistake of leaping into the pen.  And the more complex animal watering systems sometimes find themselves froze solid in the morning.  Autumn truly is a transitional time on the farm—time for bringing the livestock in to winter quarters, and time for wrapping up the loose ends of projects you always meant to get to sometime…

While caring for the animals this afternoon, the sheer brilliance of autumn’s splendor surrounding the fields filled me with a renewed appreciation for the uniqueness of a northwoods farm setting.  The goldfinch-yellow popples quake and shimmer, highlighted against the steady green of red and white pines.  A grouse spooks by the tree-line, and something crunches through the underbrush—a deer emerges, glancing furtively before going her way.  Everyday life on a northwoods farm offers something new, and as Nature lets go of another season of growth and maturation, the farm is slowly stocked up and put to rest for another year.

The squirrels know.  They dash about, always in a hurry, snatching everything and anything to literally “squirrel” away for winter.  There is a particular fellow who sits on a fence post by the barn—his presence is attested by the pile of pinecone tidbits on the ground below.  Sometimes he will be perched there, gnawing away, as I pass through the gate.  We look at each other, teasingly, and play a little at pretend chasing.  But none of these antics are in earnest because the real chase we make this time of year is with time.

The day length is the most dramatic change in autumn for farmers.  In high summer, there is light enough to start chores early and work until 10:30 or 11:00 in the evening before the dew settles in and enough is enough.  Lately, the evening encroaches near 7:00, with the fingers of dusk creeping earlier and earlier each night.  Daylight comes at a lazy 6:30 or so.  The last days of farmer’s market are packed up in the dark (and sometimes in a little snow!).  There no longer seems enough time in the day to take care of all the homestead’s growing needs—and there certainly isn’t any time just laying around.

Some aspects of the days and nights growing colder are make-work on the farm, to the point where it feels like “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza”!  Now, I’ll admit to not being the biggest grease monkey on the farm before I embark on this story, but some days just have it in for you.  It was early, and having chores finished in a timely manner was important, but it was also cold.  Our trusty old ATV is hooked up to a small trailer with a water tanker that we can trundle around to the different animal abodes, making chores efficient—theoretically.  On this morning, first the battery was dead.  Ok, recharge the battery for a while.  Then I flooded the poor thing with the choke trying to get it started.  Wait a while for that to clear.  Finally, with some help, we got the ATV chugging away.  I filled up the tanker and started shuttling from hens to ducks to turkeys, balancing buckets of cracked feed smelling softly of molasses.

But it was on the way back from the turkeys that life really got rough.  Coming down a small hill, I heard a clunk.  Just the day before, Grandpa had taken the wheels off the trailer to give them a good greasing (they had been squeaking like the squirrel was trapped inside!), but the original cotter keys had broke.  He had replaced that with a bit of wire, and I was good to go, maybe. 

At that moment on the hill, one of those wires broke too, and the drag that ensued was pretty intense.  I pulled the brakes to a stop as one of the trailer wheels rolled on by all of its own.  Looking back, the axel was well buried in the dirt.  That was it, time to get off and just plain ol’ walk the rest of chores!  Enough was enough!  And, guess what, by morning when we could get back to the machine, the battery was dead from the cold.  Had we been here before?

Still, on this day, the wondrous color of nature’s autumnal gown washes away all the frustrations as she sheds her tiny solar panels—a great hurrah of accomplishment.  We live in a precious and beautiful place, full of magic and challenges, rhythms and surprises.  As you take some time this week to enjoy the glory of autumn, reconnect with how this transitional season still leaves its mark on our lives, whether this be through the automotive leaflooking trek or the hurried digging of the last potatoes.  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.  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

In Fear of Frost

As the day lengths shorten and the darkness grows, as the sun climbs a little less higher in the skies each day, and as the winds shift northwards with that extra bit of chill, farmers and gardeners shiver in fear of the encroaching phenomenon that marks the bitter ending of the lush summer growing season—frost!

On the farm, we call it the “F”-word.  Chilliness is one thing, as is a damp rainy day, but a frost is nothing to take lightly when tending over three acres of organic-style vegetable production.  Frosts damage produce and kill sensitive plants, leaving a once teaming garden limp, black, and in every respect little more than a bone yard.

Farmers know well the fine line between 33 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cranberry growers install temperature sensors to alert producers of encroaching freezes so that sprinkler systems can manually or automatically douse crops to keep away the damaging chill.  There have been many, many hand-numbing nights, covering by flashlight, when such a system sounded rather appealing!  Or, perhaps, some football stadium out there wouldn’t mind donating their old retractable dome to a farmer?  That way, with one button, I could cover the whole place!  …sounds like wishful thinking.

Well, if an adequate sprinkling system is not available, the next best line of defense against the frost is covering with fabric.  In our early farm days, we consigned sheets, blankets, bedspreads, afghans, towels, and anything else of that likeness we could muster into service.  Fabrics by the boxful would be hauled up from the farmhouse basement and trundled out to the rows of delicate produce, one sheet at a time.  Tedious is a mild way to describe this process. 

But the experience does not end here!  Oh no!  In the morning, once the frostiness melts, each blanket and sheet had to be laid out on clothes lines, on fences, on ropes strung between red pines and majestic maples.  Each piece by morning would be laden—no soaked—with dew (which meant that we became equally soaked) and nearly freezing cold.  Wearing gloves was almost hopeless, since they became so sopping that it was more of a hindrance than a help, so you just pressed on with blue-white hands that ached for hours afterwards.

Back in the days before we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, clients would drive past the garden on the way to pick up their CSA shares or other farm goods, notice all the frost covers draped over every available hanging surface, and ask, “Are you doing laundry today?”

But some advancements in technology are truly worthwhile.  One of these is a product called “Agribon,” which is lightweight, comes in long rolls, and can cover several garden bed widths at a time.  Cut the length of our rows, two people can completely cover 500 square feet in less than a minute—compared to an age of draping sheets and blankets down the length of the row.  Needless to say, we have become supreme fans of Agribon!

But what to do with all these now obsolete sheets and blankets (other than keeping a few around just in case!)?  Well, farmers are not in the habit of letting much of anything go to waste—waste not, want not.  This past year I finally finished restoring a grand-sized rag rug loom.  Weaving rag rugs has been a traditional way of giving old remnants, garments, and other unwanted fabrics a new and useful life.  Aha!  The good old washing machine has had quite a workout grinding through the multitude of colors and textures of former frost covers as I hand cut them into strips and weave them into artful yet functional rugs.

Agribon and rugs aside, there are just some parts of the garden that are too big to cover—places like the squash and pumpkin patch.  On our farm, squashes, pumpkins, sweet corn, and potatoes commonly follow the previous year’s pig pens.  Each season, these areas are uniquely shaped, heavily mulched, and farther from irrigation than our more managed, raised-bed produce areas.  To say that these hog-powered patches grow a little squash would be modest…exceedingly modest.

When this season’s “F”-word becomes unavoidably imminent, we bring out one of our hay wagons and park it by the patch.  Then commences what I have come to call “Easter Egg Hunting for Adults.”  Prickly and spiny stems and vines await, with broad leaves to disguise the precious squashes below—this is a job for gloves, long sleeves, and hearty souls. 

This year, my labors in the squash patch were accompanied by Gary, a vacationer and volunteer who was interested in learning more about our farming enterprise and willing to lend a hand.  We bobbed up and town, filling our arms with blue Confections, orange Hubbards, and green Buttercups.  We laughed at monstrous, warty gourds, hiding acorns, and curly-stemmed pumpkins.  Gary’s Santa Clausian beard brushed the tops of the plants as he reached for the next golden nugget hidden below.  “There’s more in here than I thought!”

“We must be making progress,” I offered cheerfully.  “I’m having to walk farther for each trip.”

We sorted the squashes into piles by type, though the piles soon began to mingle as the hay wagon became so loaded that one group spilled over into the next.  By evening, the patch was picked clean (or as clean as it was going to be at that point), and with the help of some strong volunteer backs, we managed to push the wagonload into a shed just as dark settled in for the night.

Yet despite the cold and the wet and the prickles, the flurry of work that precedes the first hard frost it still worth the effort.  There is something heartbreaking about finally letting the peppers and eggplants succumb to oblivion, or watching the tomatoes turn to translucent balls of mush.  And there is something particularly satisfying about tucking that load of squash into the shed and sneaking in weeks later to pick out a golden Butternut for supper.

Whether the fear of frost has reached your area yet this autumn or not, be warned that it is coming!  Store it away, cover it well, and hope for the best.  And, of course, take a moment to give thanks for the bounty summer has afforded each of us this year.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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


 
 
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