North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Small but Mighty

The call comes at 6:30 in the morning.  Only the first rays of light shift the deep blues to a brighter haze.  A bit of hoarfrost coats the branches, while the robins begin their daily rustle amidst last year’s leaves.  I bolt out of bed and rush for the phone, “Yes?”  The cheeping in the background lets me know the cause of this call before the lady even speaks.  “I’ll be there right away.”

Throw on something, grab my glasses, and thump downstairs to make certain all is ready.  This time last year, with the early spring, the hens were already on pasture and the brooder boxes were set up in the chicken coop.  This year, the hens haven’t left the coop due to the late snows, the garage is stubbornly cold…so the boxes are in our house.  Long rows of refrigerator boxes on their sides that had been saved for us by the local hardware store stand ready for their precious charges.  The red heat lamps are on, warming the shredded newspaper bedding.

I fill the feeders and waterers, grab some towels, and head for the car.  It’s chilly outside, and all I can think about is those little chicks, cold and scared from their long journey through the postal system.  Mom cranks up the temperature to almost 80 degrees as we near town, hoping to lessen the stress of the additional half hour it will take to get home.

Clutching the towels, I chase after an employee punching in their access code, but I still have to wait outside, expectantly.  It’s hard to keep still, watching my foggy breath and peering in through the little strip of window in the heavy metal door.  I can hear all 200 of them--cheep cheep—as they round the corner inside.  Two four-compartment boxes bound together (a stack almost bigger than the petite postal worker) emerge through the forbidden door, with a “Here you go!”  I toss the towels on top to keep the chicks from shocking in the cold and waddle beneath their bulk back down the ramp to the car.  It’s chick season!

Our first batch of chicks in the mail, the summer of 1999, was just a little box of 27 hearty souls sent from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.  Just a little one-compartment cardboard box with round holes stamped in the sides and lid.  The curious beaks poked through, reaching for my sleeve and fingers, a fuzzy wing popping out here or a little taloned toe there.

These poultry arrivals were introduced to their broodering ring in our first chicken coop (a former shower house from a resort), where we had heat lamps and folding chairs set up to spend the night watching over the precious clutch of fuzzballs.  It was mid-June, but oh was it cold out there that first night!  We shook and shivered and piled on winter clothing and blankets, while the little chicks dozed and scuttled without so much as a care.  Their little micro-world was nice and warm, despite our misery.

Invariably, chick season also happens to be power-outage season!  A freak ice storm comes through or the line needs repairs and everything shuts down.  In our first years, we’d frantically pile the chicks into a box and cram ourselves into the cab of the farm truck, cranking up the heat while idling.  The chicks were as happy as could be, but we were miserable beyond imagining—pressing our faces against the cold panes of glass to try to relieve ourselves from the suffocating heat!  It was time to buy a little generator, at least for getting us through those dicey moments.  When you reach 200 chicks at a time, they don’t fit into the truck cab very well!

As our laying flock grew, we were ready to experiment with hatching.  First, Star (a black-and-white Aruacana hen) went setty, puffing and huffing when anyone came near her nest.  We gave her a dog kennel and a nice clutch of eggs to hatch, but after two weeks she simply gave up—tired of just sitting, sitting, sitting, with nothing else to do.  The next year, she grew broody once more, so we tried the routine again, showering her with chicken delicacies (bread, oatmeal, clover) and plenty of privacy.  But a few days before hatching, one of the eggs cracked, and the sulfurous rotting stench was enough to put us and Star into a frantic panic.  That was it, she had had enough!  We’d have to find another way to hatch our own eggs.

Learning to operate an incubator is part science and part art.  There’s turning, temperature, humidity, candling, and other factors to learn.  These days, with one incubator in degrees Celsius with a wet bulb to monitor humidity and the other with a digital thermometer in Fahrenheit with a hygrometer reading moisture percentage, I keep cheat sheets and charts perpetually posted on a bulletin board above the incubation station in our walk-out basement.  It’s a juggling match of keeping all the conditions just right for the fertile eggs to transform into soggy little balls of peep that chip their way free.

Last spring, our interns oogled over the half-fogged-up Plexiglas window into the incubator, cheering the hatchlings on.  “Come on!  You can do it!”  The chick finally pushes out of the wide end of the shell then flops exhausted at the exertion of it all.  Such a small creature but so determined to survive.  His damp fluff clings to his tissue-thin skin—a far cry from the pictures of clean, white-shelled eggs with a fluffy, dry chick standing in the middle.  Birthing is a much messier process!

Having the incubators in the house is convenient on many levels, including the need to check on hatching chicks every two hours (including through the night).  The loud, frantic chirp of a terrified chick that has flipped on his back alerts the need for help, and the scuttle of feet lets me know that a new hatchling is ready to graduate from the incubator to the brooder.

This spring, the first chick hatched from our incubator pipped nearly ten hours before any of his friends.  Rambunctious and ready to go with dark fuzz and furry feet, he wriggled expectantly as I nestled the little fellow in amongst the warm bedding of the brooder stove box.  He blinked his dark, beady eyes and began to cry, “Ree-kee-kee!” as though it were the end of the world to be alone in such a place.  I finally found a stuffed toy to place next to “Reekee” so there was finally some hope for a bit of sleep.  While he wasn’t eager to sit next to the furry object, it did calm the crying.  The next morning, a blond chick was ready to join the brooder, blissfully unaware of its predecessor’s existence.  Reekee scurried right over, flapping his little wings as if to say, “I LOVE YOU!”  The blond chick went buggy-eyed and gave Reekee a hearty peck on the face…so much for a happy little pair.  Sorry Reekee, guess that’s life.

Between the incubation projects and the chicks arriving in the mail, our house has been converted into a cheeping extravaganza.  As the little birds peck and scratch, their eager antics make me smile each spring.  They may still be tiny, but their tenacity shows their exuberance to explore their world and grow strong through the sunny summer months.  Small but mighty; they seem to sense this of themselves.  Just wait until I grow enough wing feathers to fly out of this box! 

Yup, it sure is baby chick season around here.  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

 

 
 

Chickens Got Cabin Fever!

This morning, the chicken watering vessels were torn apart and scattered across the floor, with extension cords barely attached.  The feeders were flipped over, feathers and dust lay everywhere, and on each little red face was a perfect expression of exasperation.  My chickens are in the grips of late winter Cabin Fever!

The turkeys with their long, scaly legs smash down the fresh snow each morning without a care, while the chickens glare at the rising snowdrift just outside their little door with their beady orange-rimmed eyes.  It’s just not fair.  Chickens weren’t made with long enough legs, and they’re not as immune to the cold as their knobby-necked neighbors.

The days are growing longer—but the progress is not fast enough for the chickens.  Each morning, they wait for me to open their door, hoping…hoping…hoping…  Nope, it’s still white out there.  Buggers.  These descendents of subtropical birds huff in disgust and fly up to their roots to grumble amongst themselves over their lot.

Meanwhile, I have those disassembled waterers to pick up, thaw under hot water, reassemble, and return filled with only a little grudging thanks as my reward.  Oh, well, the other reward might be a half frozen egg in the corner (if I’m lucky) or a clutch of warm ones beneath an armed and dangerous lady who puffs up three times her size as I draw near (if I dare). 

Being so cooped up with such fuss and feathers means the notorious dust produced by chickens has collected in the corners, on the cobwebs, and along fencing partitions in the coop until it dangles like Spanish Moss from the limbs of live oak trees.  So, to keep the ladies from thinking that they live in little more than a pig sty, today I brought out the shop-vac.

Yes, you know you’re on a farm run by women when they vacuum out the chicken coop!  Up on the ladder and armed with the black and red nozzled device, I was determined to conquer the dust, but the sudden varooooom sent the whole flock into convulsions of fear—pelting into corners or nesting boxes and staring with wide-eyed terror, their tails smashed flat against the back wall.  It’s a monster!  It’s going to pull off all my feathers!  The sky is falling!

But no, only the dust was falling, and after a while the ladies calmed their fears and watched my shop-vac antics with half amusement.  At least it was a bit of entertainment for the day, which was more than they had to occupy themselves with most wintery afternoons.  These days, even a chunk of suet gets boring.

Sometimes, as I approach the chicken coop in the morning, I can hear a tap-a-tap sound like an army of miniature hammers at the walls of the chicken coop.  Now in unison, now tapping askew of each other.  Are the chickens trying to escape—breaking down the walls of the Bastille?  I open the creaky door to find fluffy golden hens all in a row pecking heartily at the frost that has built up on the insides of the walls from the cold—frozen condensed chicken breath.  Only, to them, it seems more like chicken ice-cream.  Eventually, the peck indentations will circumference the coop, reaching as high as the feathery neck can stretch.

We have too many laying hens to house them all in one coop for the winter, so part of the crew holds over in our smaller hoop house, which stands close behind our home.  During the day, the solar energy keeps them warm as they luxuriate in their sauna dust baths—leaving the floor a virtual moonscape of miniature craters filled with lazy-eyed featherballs.  But the greenhouse has trouble staying warm at night, so I run a few heat lamps to give the ladies a break from the chill.

Dusk falls, and the high tunnel glows a soft golden-orange.  But wait, it’s now the chicken shadow show!  Our cat Pumpkin perches by the window, watching gargantuan black chicken shadows strut across the screen like an exotic paper puppet show.  Do the chickens know they are on parade?  Do the chickens notice their own shadows as well? 

And then the Silver-laced Wyandotte rooster starts crowing at 2:00 in the morning, and we wonder why we thought it was such a grand idea to keep the chickens so close to the house…

Admittedly, it was in part to help ease the burden of chores during the dark phase of the year.  While there are not as many chores to accomplish during the winter months as there is in the summertime, what chores are still necessary are often made harder by winter’s temperament.  The ground heaves and doors no longer want to shut or stay shut.  Water faucets freeze.  Paths must be either trounces or shoveled across the barnyard.  Door knobs and locks are coated with ice and won’t turn or unlock.  And a sudden thaw sends a chicken coop from being a nice, frozen pack of bedding to a veritable swamp in need of immediate cleaning.

But the ice is the worst.  I recall one day of slipping and sliding about with feed and water, chipping away ice from door sills and thawing out of the unplugged turkey waterer.  My hands were freezing, and my feet were numb.  The chickens huddled on their roosts as puffy balls of fluff without any toes to be seen.  Finally, I had my ice-cream bucket full of eggs, and I was heading back to the house!  Enough of this cold, I was ready to curl up by the wood stove and thaw myself out!  As I went teetering along the path down the gentle slope to our house, the ice had the last laugh. 

Falling can be something you don’t notice until it’s too late.  I remember looking up as my arms flew skyward, and there was the bucket going up…and up…and up…  The eggs were spreading outward like a multi-colored firework display in slow motions.  And then I hit the ice with a great bump on my rump and tried desperately to cover myself as the sounds of percussive splat-splat-splat pelted down all around me.

The poor ladies.  They would have surely read me the poultry riot act if they had known the fate of their day’s labors.  We took out our scoop shovels and cleaned up as much of the runny yellow mess as we could, much to the delight of the pigs (and the dogs, who cleaned up the rest quite happily).  It was a sore moment, in more ways than one.

But there was no falling on the ice today as I wrapped up the cord on the shop-vac and climbed down from the ladder.  A black-and-white rooster pranced for a hen, with one wing fanned and tail plumed.  A lady from her nest crooned softly and re-arranged the pile of eggs beneath her, while a second looked impatient for her turn to have a nesting spot.  Still, despite the return of normal chicken routine, I could sense the chicken cabin fever lurking beneath the surface.  I can only imagine that at night they dream of grass and slugs and the deliciousness of summer…for a chicken.

I just hope that they haven’t knocked over all their waterers again by morning.  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 Search of Light

We are seekers of light.  From the ancient days of setting bonfires atop hills in the darkness of winter to the contemporary fashion of LED Christmas lights turning humble homes into nocturnal gingerbread illuminations, the lure of light in dark times has never faded.  Specialists encourage synthetic daylight lamps on our desks to brighten mid-winter moods, while others simply move away during the winter in search of sun and warmth.

A winter exodus is often not an option for farmers, especially those who raise animals, so we must satisfy our need for light through other means.  There’s the good, old-fashioned book by the comforting glow of the wood stove as a place to start or the tradition of leaving all the holiday lighting up until the end of January to prolong the enjoyment.  There is something about the flickering embers of a fire that connects us with the ancestors or the colorful glint of illuminated home decorations that brings back magical memories for this time of year.

While humans are creatures of light by psychological preference, plants depend on light at a much more visceral level.  As the daylight slackened past the equinox, leafy crops in our aquaponic system (a specialized greenhouse where crops grow year-round, powered by nutrient rich water from our tilapia fish) began growing sluggishly, if at all.  It was something of an “I give up!” in the plant world, as most of their outdoor compatriots either succumbed to the cold or retreated to the root level with hopes for a new start in the spring.  In order for our indoor vegetable friends to have a chance, it was time to order grow lights.

We had hoped to be able to take advantage of new LED technology for grow lights, but this alternative was frightfully cost inhibitive compared with traditional models—it takes a massive pack of little lights to emit enough spectrum to stimulate plant growth.  The traditional models waste some energy as heat, but since we would only be using the lights in the wintertime, when the greenhouse required auxiliary heat if the sun was not shining, this could prove a bonus rather than a problem.  To best utilize this new resource, we added a timer and light-sensing system that would only turn on the grow lights when not enough sunlight was present to mimic day lengths similar to equinox levels.

Each light services an eight-by-eight foot region, so calculations showed that we would need 10 lights, which arrived through our trusty delivery driver who must often wonder what sort of odd bit of equipment we have ordered this time!  It was also tricky installing the lights because they had to be hung over the grow beds, which were already full of plants!  But tricky or not, the lights were up and running before Christmas.  The first time all 10 were turned on for inspection, the shine was surprisingly intense. 

“You could start a tanning spa in here,” Dave our electrician laughed.  “Might make more money than with lettuce.”

That first evening was filled with a misty fog, sending the warm, yellowish glow emanating from the greenhouse up into a dome of light above the trees.  Surely, the neighbors must be wondering what form of strange spacecraft has landed at that three-crazy-ladies’ farm.  What on earth are they up to now?

Jon, our contractor, was driving home that night.  As he made his way down Moose Lake Road, he noticed the glowing dome of yellowish light coming from the farm.  “I thought for sure the greenhouse was on fire!” he laughed with us after pulling up to the house to chat.  “I came around the corner in a great hurry and went, oh, well thank goodness.  Looks like Dave got the lights working.”

The plants were the happiest participants of all.  Within days, the Napa cabbages began to double in size, while the lettuces perked up their growth in response to the added day length.  As seekers of light, these leafy greens and fresh herbs rejoiced at the bounty of energy and have been filling our display cooler and many a salad plate since.

Other appreciators of supplemental light in wintertime are the chickens.  While in the summertime we raise chickens for the table as well as for the egg basket, the laying hens are the only chickens that overwinter on our farm.  This perky crew of Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, colored egg-laying Aruacanas, and feather-footed Light Brahmas transition from their summer quarters of mobile pasturing structures to the barnyard broodering coops or greenhouses.  Here, they are protected from the winds and nearby electricity can power heated water buckets.

But the hens, like the lettuce plants, stop producing during the winter months if left to nature’s allotment of sunlight.  Hens would spend more time sleeping and less time making your breakfast.  Chickens, like people, have a structure in their brain called the pineal body, which is stimulated by sunlight.  Take the sunlight away, and we naturally become sleepy.  In pioneer days, when lamp oil or candles were expensive, farmers woke with the sunrise and often retired to bed soon after sunset.

It does not require full spectrum sunlight—as needed by the plants—to fool the pineal body in humans or birds, however.  Simply adding more light can keep us and hens going long into the night…though not enough dark time and rest can leave both of us cranky and dissatisfied.  Adding supplemental light to chicken coops (in tandem with facing coop windows in a southerly bank to catch the most daylight) has long been known to aid winter laying.  Mix this with hearty heavy breed chickens, with plenty of bulk and thick feathering, as well as nutritional boosts like chopped liver, pork suet, kitchen scraps, or smashed pumpkins to replace those long-missed insects and green grass, and the ladies rebound from their autumn molt with vigor.

Tending the hens or the lettuce in the evening also gives me a boost of superficial sunshine, a glimpse of healthy, green growth, and a surrounding of contented, clucking hens.  We seekers of light find ways to make the most of winter, even with a bit of electrical foolery, to keep going through these long nights.  But as we embark into January, we know that the days are beginning to lengthen, if only by a minute or two each day.  Still, there is hope that spring will come again, with sunlight, warmth, and a new season of growth.  Savor those little moments, for each moment is all we ever have.  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

 

 
 

The Grand Molt

It has a way of creeping up on you.  Maybe not for the barnyard fowl so much, but at least for their caretaker.  First, the days grow noticeably shorter.  Then the egg production slackens.  Certainly, laying eggs is correlated with exposure to light, but this change seems fairly drastic.  I chide the ladies for being pikers…and then I realize that this is the time of year for The Grand Molt.

Feathers are nature’s most complex skin covering.  Lightweight, insulating, and empowering flight, feathers are also a wonderful means of display.  Made of collagen (like your fingernails), the material is lightweight, structurally strong, and colors well.  Pigments offer tones in yellow, red, brown, and black, while blues and greens are caused by prisms in the feather itself reflecting and refracting light.  Take a rooster’s emerald green tail plumage, remove it from direct sunlight, and it become simply a black feather. 

Recent archeological digs in China have unearthed amazing evidence of early feathers on dinosaurs, which were neither very insulating nor aerodynamic.  These basic feathers, much like the coarse covering on a kiwi bird, are believed to have been primarily used for display—making the creature appear larger or adding attraction for a mate.  As this new modified scale was honed, it formed into the wide range of feather types found today—primary flight feathers, downy feathers, water-repellant feathers, and display feathers.  The airfoils on an airplane’s wing are modeled after feathers, and science has yet to produce any substance as insulating as goose down.  The feathers of waterfowl are so naturally structured that, even when completely stripped of their oils, they still cause water to bead up and wick away.

But before you wish you could have been endowed with feathers to keep warm this autumn, know that this complex skin covering comes at a price.  Even the most well-preened feather wears out from exposure to wind, sun, and use, and it has to be sloughed off and a new one grown in its place.  This process is called molting.

In the spring of the year (when the sheep are shorn before lambing), I always feel a pang of guilt for the ewes, who shiver at the drastic change in clothing.  But at least I am comforted knowing that warmer weather is on its way.  My chickens, turkeys, and ducks on the other hand have a habit of changing their feather coats in late autumn.  To a degree, this makes sense—going into the winter months with fresh feathers.  But as I watch them turn from sleek hens to a motley crew of dishevelment, I can’t help but feel that this is less than perfect timing.

I know it has reached The Grand Molt when I open the coop door in the morning and am showered in a rolling cloud of disembodied, worn out feathers.  They billow out in all directions, littering the coop floor and the yard outside.  And my half-undressed ladies bob about looking like homeless drifters who have little care for appearances—a far cry from their summer vanity of careful preening and disgruntlement at having their feathers ruffled the wrong way.  These days, they look as well kempt as a teenager’s bedroom.

But growing feathers takes considerable energy, with each new plume starting as a “pin feather” wrapped in a scaly sheath.  This capsule is filled with blood as it forms the interlocking barbs and sturdy shaft of the feather.  When the feather is ready to emerge, the scales of the pin shatter (creating rather a lot of dust in the coop), and the formed feather begins to elongate until it has reached its proper length.  In the meantime, because of this taxing growth, hens often cease laying eggs until the molt is complete.

I tease my mangy lot while trudging through morning chores with an Appalachian folk tune.

My old hen was a good old hen

Best darn hen ever laid an egg

Sometimes white, sometimes brown

Best little hen this side of town

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid an egg since way last fall

First time she cackled, she cackled quite a lot

Next time she cackled, she cackled in the pot

My old hen, she won’t do

She lays eggs and taters too

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid a egg since way last fall

The turkeys prance sheepishly, holding low their bunt tails.  Patches are missing here and their, showing the wispy down beneath.  The Toms often regret to offer their poofed display until at least some of their tail feathers return.  The ducks shows the least change (perhaps because ducks are endowed with ever so many more feathers—you know if you ever tried to pluck one).  But the yard full of scattered white bits give a telltale sign.

Birds grow new feathers nearly all the time.  Young birds graduate from their first chick plumage to adult-sized feathers.  New feathers replace ones that have been damaged or pulled out by bossy comrades.  But the molting process is the avian way of “changing the closet” for the coming of winter.  No need to buy a down vest when you can grow one!

Yet even in the midst of The Grand Molt, I know that this too shall pass.  The billowing feathers will settle, and my ladies will become sleek and vain once again.  And all the birds will be warm and snug for winter.  In the meantime, it’s not avian mange; it’s just the annual molt.  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

 

 
 

For the Love of Chickens

Parents, be warned.  Big endeavors often emerge from small ideas—a question or a suggestion.  In this case, the question came when I was 11.  At the time, we were living in Arizona, and a friend and I had just finished what was, for us, a rather monumental research project on birds—equipped with our own illustrations and strengthened by a trip to a notable avian sanctuary.  This truly Montessori in-depth research project had sparked my deep, enduring, and passionate affection for feathered creatures of all natures (before this, I had been fascinated with dinosaurs, which really was an evolutionary continuation of interests…just spend some time watching turkeys).

Fifth graders can be rather precocious, so I had plucked up the courage one day to ask my mom, “Mommy, could I have a pet bird?”  We had yet to have a pet anything in our house.  Our lives had thus far been too busy and too absent from home to add a pet into the milieu.  But my 11-year-old self remained optimistic.  Surely a parakeet or a cockatoo wouldn’t be too much trouble.  I could take care of it when I was home from school.  Besides, I was 11, which seemed pretty grown up to me at the time.  I could be responsible, surely! 

I’m sure my hopefulness was glowing from face to sneakers, and my mother’s answer reflected her supreme sense of reality, coupled with her Montessori awareness of never squelching a child’s interests.  “I’m afraid we can’t have a pet bird, Laura, because your dad is allergic,” she smiled reassuringly, showing with her eyes that this point was unavoidable.  “But if we ever move to the farm, maybe you can have some chickens.”

The Farm was an old homestead my mother’s parents had purchased back in 1968.  Way up north in the wilder reaches of Wisconsin, this had been the family retreat well before my time of memory.  It was a place of wintry Christmases with a real tree cut from the majestic forests surrounding the old hay fields, of forts dug in the enormous snow banks beside the perilously long driveway, of Grandma’s roast turkey with dressing and pumpkin pie…  It truly was the “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” type of place in an imaginative 11-year-old’s soul.  There even was an old, weathered barn with loose hay to jump in and various dusty and forgotten nooks with antique equipment to explore.

Nobody lived at the farm, which the Steidinger clan had called North Star from the beginning.  At least nobody did anymore.  My juvenile understanding that the family retreat had once been a farm hinted that people used to live there.  That once upon a time there had been horses and milk cows—their names scrawlingly carved above their respective stanchions.  And pigs.  Grandpa always talked about how one part of the hedge he’d planted years ago grew taller than the rest because that was where the old pig pen had been.  And there must have been chickens.

Chickens!  The thought stuck in my mind like a far-off promise.  Chickens were soft, roundish birds that could be picked up and held.  Chickens made curious clucking sounds and went exploring in interesting, small places—just like I was fond of doing.  And chickens came in all sizes and shapes and colors…  Chickens were cool!

And here comes the warning to parents.  A seemingly innocent question, “Mommy, can I…” met with “No, but…” can change your life.  Irrevocably.  Unimaginably.  And yet, it may spark a journey that propels you, your family, and even your community, into a movement that is critical to humanity both locally and globally—you just might one day find you’ve become a farmer.

It started with the library.  With the thoroughness of a graduate student working on her thesis, I checked out EVERY book on chickens from the Phoenix Public Library (which is a pretty big library) and commenced my studies.  Hopefully, this was not too alarming for my parents, who soon were receiving official reports on my scholarly discoveries.  I even made a little hand-written book chronicling chicken diseases, their diagnosis, and treatment.

But a library book was still not a real chicken.  Even a remarkably realistic stuffed puppet that participated in a costumed portrait of my sister Kara and me (which also included a stuffed dog toy, Kara’s animal desire) couldn’t flap, cluck, or lay eggs of its own—despite an eager imagination.  The real chickens would have to wait…at least for a little while.  But they never really went away.

Becoming a poultry fancier, however, opened a world of stories and history within the family.  I began to learn that my maternal grandparents—who had always been a couple dedicated to small-town medicine in my living memory—had grown up on farms in central Illinois.  They began sharing tales about how the team of horses pulled the harrow faster when Papa was nearby, or the corncobs that “jumped” out of the basked on their way across the yard to the wood stove.  There were stories of outdoor summer kitchens, orchards that would make my mouth water, threshing with whole crews of hungry men, and pigs watered (or watermelons chilled) from the ever-gushing artesian well.  It was a world unto itself.

Chickens came significantly closer to reality, when in 1998 Bert Fullington helped us move an old generator shack (which had once been a resort shower house) to the barnyard as the first coop.  The next summer, we raised 25 broilers and a handsome rooster named in Bert’s honor before returning to Madison in the fall.  The next summer, we returned to the farm again…and didn’t go back.  To the chickens, we added sheep, then pigs, then turkeys and ducks and honeybees.  Now we’re full-time farming—restoring the homestead and regenerating the land and its stories. 

I still love my chickens very much—their individual characteristics, their sense of curiosity, and their marvelous propensity for turning kitchen scraps into eggs.  Spending quality time with my feathered dinosaurs and a loaf of old bread provides its own sense of communion at the end of a long day on the farm.  Sometimes I wonder where I might be today if not for the lure of these South-East Asian jungle fowl, their orange-rimmed eyes glinting in the late afternoon sun.

Sweet Pea, a Buff Orpington hen sidles up, clucking amicably and letting me stroke her soft, golden feathers.  And I know that, down on the farm, we’re in this journey together…and it all started for the love of chickens.

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

 

 
 
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