North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Spring Cleaning

When interns come to our farm, there are lots of things to learn, but one of the first lessons goes like this:  half of good farming is cleaning, another half keeping things organized, another half planning three steps ahead of what you’re doing now, and the last half is saved for picking up after unforeseen disasters.  If that sounds like too many “halves” to you, then you might guess that farming also involves having more things that need doing than can possibly be completed.  This week, however, we’ve been catching up on the cleaning part.

The saga really started in January—or didn’t, to be precise.  Typically, a light January or February thaw gives us a chance to clean out the hen coop and freshen things up.  But with no thaw, the bedding and droppings stayed hard as a block of chicken-flavored ice that wasn’t going anywhere without a good fight.  By March, things were desperate.  Hacking paths into the snow in our yard big enough to drag out the wheelbarrow, we dug and chipped and drug out the odiferous concoction and heaped it amidst the two feet of snow.  This, of course, meant that a second cleanup into the manure spreader was necessary to relieve the yard once the snow subsided.  Next time you take a farm tour, be glad you don’t have to wade through three feet of last winter’s chicken excrement!

Our dear “honey wagon” (some tongue-in-cheek farmer must have thought that term up for a manure spreader) has certainly had a workout since it arrived on our farm as an already well-used piece of machinery.  In the days when we had 25 chickens and 2 sheep, a pitchfork, shovel, and wheelbarrow was all we needed to keep things tidy.  But as both numbers began to multiply, our hands and backs were ready for a break.

Grandpa remembers the days when he and his dad would pitchfork the manure from the cow barn out the back door into a winter pile.  Come spring, it was much more of a heap or “small mountain” as Grandpa recalls from his teenage memories on the old family farm in central Illinois.  “We’d fork it out the door, then fork it up onto a wagon pulled by horses (because we didn’t have a manure spreader) and then we’d fork it back out onto the field while the horses plodded along.  You gals have it easy.”

If you’re not familiar with the workings of a honey wagon, imagine a long, narrowish two-wheel trailor with three sides (the back is left open).  Along the bottom of the wagon runs a chain on each side along the length, supporting bars that slowly pull along the wagon floor to the back, drop off, come under the bed of the wagon, and then rotate back up like a large conveyor belt.  At the back of the spreader is a stout bar supporting what look like large metal webbed hands called “flails” pointed in different directions that spin around fast from the bar.  When the wagon is hooked to the tractor’s power takeoff and engaged, the combination of moving conveyor bars and flailing paddles spreads whatever might be in the wagon in a relatively even pattern out the back.

That is, unless the wind is blowing from behind you—then you get a nice even spray all over the tractor and yourself.  There’s more than one reason we have large-brimmed sunhat on the packing list for our interns.  “But remember,” Grandpa says, “My dad always said that’s the smell of money.”

After restoring our historic gambrel barn in 2001, there was considerably more space for housing sheep.  But even with the manure spreader to help with hauling and distributing the nutrient-rich bedding, we were still chucking it into the wagon by hand.  Some spring manure packs three feet deep could take days to clean out, and it was terribly hard on our hands, shoulders, and backs.  It was time to upgrade with some smart machinery!

Leave it to Grandpa to find the answer.  Another used piece, looking for a new home, only this time a bit more modern than the spreader.  Let’s just say that some small bobcats are trouble (for ducks) but others are pretty awesome powered pitchforks!  Kara whirs around between the hand-hewn tamarack timbers of the barn with surgical precious, attacking the soiled hay and wood shavings with vigor. 

But it’s more than just cleaning things out.  Composted animal manure bedding is a vital nutrient source for soils through organic and permaculture practices.  For our current barn-cleaning project, we’re working to improve our hayfields by spreading this excellent organic matter mixed with lime to improve pH and calcium levels.  Another load of black gold pulls away as Mom engages the Allis D15 tractor with its characteristic grumph-humming chug.  Earlier, we had the creative inspiration to use the honey wagon to spread well-rotted compost (humus) over the garden and potato patches.  Pitchfork, shovel, and 5-gallon buckets?  Save those for the small jobs; we are getting serious!

The other fun (hah!) aspect of spring cleaning on our farm are all those dishes I meant to get to last fall…if only there was just one more nice, sunny day.  I don’t mean dishes like what pile up at the kitchen sink—I mean “chicken dishes.”  Red-and-white plastic waterers, orange bell drinkers, metal bucket and range feeders, pails, ice-cream buckets, heat lamps, and all the works.  They waited for me at the back door to our walk-out basement, patiently.  It was one of those things that doesn’t go away, despite trying to ignore it.  No, the chicken dishes were still there after the ice, which had bound them all together onto the concrete, melted this spring.

I attacked the hoard in batches.  First off were all the feeders and waterers that were needed for the imminent arrival of baby chicks.  Scrubbing, brushing, sanitizing, laying out on towels to air dry—the floor was soon covered with bright, clean chicken dishes.  While cleaning isn’t my favorite thing to do (is it anyone’s?), at least it’s the sort of thing where you can actually see the progress you’ve made.  But then, off they go to the brooders, and it doesn’t take long for them to get all good and dirty again.  It’s like laundry—it never ends.

Now we just have to move those piglets out to their summer pasture paddocks, pen the yearling ewes out in the yard for the day, and muck out the Clear-Span “lamb barn” sometime soon, get the rams into their summer home and clear out the “red barn,” and we should be in good shape with our spring cleaning.  We’re pecking away at the yard work and garden, and summertime will be here before we know it.  Best wishes for your spring cleaning projects, 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. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

Barn Quilts

You may have seen them in Iowa.  You may have seen them out on the prairie.  And if you make it down to the farm, you’ll see them right here in Sawyer County!  These precision-painted pieces adorning agricultural structures are known as “barn quilts,” and they are growing in popularity—both for the farmers who own the structures and for the public who travels to see them.

Often when we think of quilts, what comes to mind are intricately patterned fabrics lovingly stitched in geometric designs on Grandmother’s bed.  Every piece tells a story and ever stitch is filled with time, care, and love.  Barn quilts also require a fine sense of detail and historicity, but the mediums are different—plywood and paint instead of fabric and thread.  But just as comforting quilts have a rich past, so too does the barn quilt.

The first use of barn quilts dates approximately 300 years ago in Pennsylvania amidst Dutch settlements.  At this time, paint was expensive, so barns typically went unpainted—weathering to a natural gray.  Artistic inclinations have a way of sprouting forth despite all obstacles, and color found a way to distinguish barns by the addition of painted quilt squares in prominent locations on the barn’s exterior.  One of the definitions of art is “to make special,” and barn quilts served exactly that purpose during these colonial years.  Their popularity made it customary to give directions by using the names of the quilt squares on individual barns.  

“Once you reach snail’s trail, keep to the right until you see the drunkard’s path.  Then you’ll have reached the Mason farm.”

Like Old Time fiddle tunes, each quilt block has a unique name that refers to its history, creation, or the imaginative nature of its initial maker.  And, not unlike fiddle tunes, while many blocks may appear similar to the casual eye, careful study will show interesting variations and new twists on basic shapes like triangles, rectangles, and squares.  The patterns used in quilting are inseparable from the physics of piecing bits of fabric together to form a coherent whole that still lays flat when finished, and barn quilt patterns keep to these traditional boundaries, including using established block names.

My Aunt Jana (who grew up on the prairie in Nebraska) has a particular fondness for barn quilts—emailing me pictures of her latest finds.  And when, as an inter-generational family project, we decided to create our own barn quilt, it was the name that inspired the final pattern choice.  Since 1968, when my grandparents purchased the homestead from the Fullington family, this place has always been called “North Star,” which influenced the farm’s official name as North Star Homestead.  When Jana discovered that there was a North Star quilt block, it seemed like a perfect fit.

The North Star block has a significant history shrouded in a lingering sense of mystery.  Before the Civil War decided America’s official opinion on the issue of slavery, tens if not hundreds of thousands of African Americans were ushered to freedom in the northern states and Canada by way of the Underground Railroad.  This was not a real railroad with steam engines or tracks, but a path taken by night with “Safe Houses” along the way to hide the fugitives on their treacherous journey north.  A complex and extremely secret code system for helping slaves escape included the use of quilts.  A widely recognized theory tells that women would hang a quilt bearing the North Star block on the front porch to help the runaways know that they had reached a Safe House.

The age of the Underground Railroad came at about the same time that paint became cheap, and barns were seldom left to weather into silvery gray anymore.  A particular shade of red, as well as a crisp white, happened to be the most economical, and they subsequently coated many a barn across the country.  With the coming of cheap paints and the rise of the advertising industry, it became popular among some farmers to sport advertisements (in exchange for monetary compensation) on the sides of their painted barns, rather than the antiquated barn quilts.

But just as fashions have their cycles, so too did the beautiful barn quilts.  But this time, instead of originating in New England, the resurgence of barn quilts came from the American Heartland—the Great Planes states, Iowa, and other parts of the Midwest.  Many counties in Wisconsin now have maps for taking barn quilt tours, and new barn quilts can be seen on our rolling country lanes every year.  While the early pieces distinguished families making a new start in a New World, today’s quilts honor the efforts of women in agriculture throughout history as well as today.  Grandmother’s quilts may have worn to tatters, but the memory of her loving hands endures.

Painting a barn quilt is a unique challenge.  These pieces are quite large—typically eight feet square.  Lines must be very straight and precise, the pattern well proportioned and bold, and completion requires many coats of paint to achieve a rich and solid saturation of color.  The next major challenge is getting this large piece up onto the face of the barn.  Often, this is done with the assistance of a cherry picker, but when our North Star block was ready for hanging, we were not so lucky as to have such a machine handy.  Instead, our friend and contractor Jon Sorensen erected scaffolding in front of the barn, fastened a pulley just below the roof, and screwed metal straps to the top of the barn quilt.  A sturdy rope was tied to the quilt, threaded up through the pulley, and then affixed to the back of our trusty farm ATV.  It was precarious and nerve-wracking, especially with all those tedious coats of paint at risk of being scuffed, but we were ready.

Jon, his son Kyle, and my sister Kara supported the quilt between the barn and the scaffolding and gave my mother and me the “all clear.”  We inched the ATV forward a little…then a little more…then a little bit more…as we watched the quilt ease its way up and up and up.  Kyle and Kara crawled like squirrels amidst the scaffolding, and Jon was ready with his power drill to secure the barn quilt in place once we reached the top.  Everyone breathed deeply and shook their hands free of tension after all was safe.

The quilt changed our historic 1919 barn completely.  For several weeks after the barn quilt’s installation, it would catch my eye during chores, like when a lady dramatically changes her hair color.  I love to watch the morning sun glisten off the dew on the barn quilt’s face or the mid-day shadows shift like a sun dial over its points, cast from the peak in the barn roof.  Our many farm visitors love seeing the barn quilt and learning about its story, meaning, and creation.

When we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, styled after the silhouette and flavor of our barn, we knew that there would have to be another barn quilt—this time a three-quarter sized version.  It was mid-winter when we painted the piece, so it was much too cold to paint outside or in the barn.  I was holding a brush for some final touchups in the farmhouse dining room when Grandpa called.

“What’s going on up there at the farm?”

“Well, right now I’m painting the barn quilt.”

“That’s great, where are you painting?”

Long pause.

“Well, do you really want to know…” I finally asked.

Another long pause.

“Maybe some things are better just left unsaid,” he replied

We both laughed.

“Just tell Grandma that there are lots of sheets and blankets everywhere.”

Did I mention something about art springing forth despite adversity?  This week, as you drive some meandering country lanes, watch for barn quilts, learn their stories, and enjoy this bit of farming heritage.  See you down at 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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