North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Extreme Chores

Bundled in 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, hat, gloves, and face scarf, my glasses iced over by steamy breath, facing winter chores can become daunting even before leaving the back door.

External faucets are frozen closed, so we fill five-gallon buckets in the utility sink with warm water for the pigs, lifting them high over the lip of the sink, then trundling them out to the orange sled waiting outside.  That hearty, toboggan-long sled sure does get a workout in wintertime, hauling water, hay, feed, fodder, and wood this way and that along our paths and trails across the barnyard.

These paths are packed tightly where we’ve trodden them down for months, but should a stray foot wander off—poof—you’ve sunk in above your knee.  This is especially hazardous when the trails have drifted over and it’s hard to know exactly where that curve in the path used to be.  It is equally obvious when you’ve guessed incorrectly.

Shoveling has been a daily practice for chores this winter.  As rigorous as it can be, I wonder that some form of shoveling isn’t featured at the Olympics.  The bend, the scoop, the throw…and then the tamping and scraping for the sticky snow that won’t let go of the shovel.  There’s the deck, the paths, the stoops in front of the garages, and a long stretch in front of the barn to keep the banks at bay.  Either the land has risen or the barn was always built on land a little downhill from parts of the barnyard, and spring flooding can be a real issue.  Every year, we hope for a slow melt that will allow the snows to sink gracefully into the aquifer rather than running in a torrent down the gravel road, washing out the culvert, or pooling like a lake inside the barn.  While I’m not quite ready for spring and its mounting workload, a little break from the snow and bitter cold would be welcome.

Shovel, shovel, shovel.  The high tunnel where we raise vining tomato plants in the summer is half buried in a drift.  I can only see the top portion of the door.  But with the huge pre-Birkie storm on the way, we had to make room for the new snow to be able to slide off the top and not continue to crush the arching structure.  Just wading out to the high tunnel was hip-deep in places, past the row of wind-breaking spruces sheltering mounds of dismembered pinecone tidbits that the squirrels have left.

It’s tricky shoveling out a plastic-film sided greenhouse.  Dig along the sides and the snow still lingering on the top slips and slides and flops down in your trench, so you get to shovel it out again.  And it’s soooooo easy to poke a hole in the side with the corner of the scoop, just as you hit a chunk of ice that refuses to give way.  We’ll have a few nicks to patch in the spring, but at least the snow has a place to go, rather than collapsing our precious growing structure.

Drifts on rooftops have grown dangerously heavy—two feet deep in places!  In the news are featured stories of barn and outbuildings collapsing under the tremendous weight.  Borrowing a roof rake from a neighbor, we take turns chopping and scraping, trying to make a dent in the snowload.  The long and rambling woodshed (originally used to store horse-drawn farm machinery because it was easy to back into) was the first on the list. 

There was no chance at a sudden rush of releasing snow as happens on the south side of the barn roof—rumbling and thundering and smashing in an avalanche against the side of the machine shed beside it.  So it was chop, chop and chop, chop at the drift above, wading through the snow.  The stacking pile below now leaves but a modest gap between the roofline and the ground!  The woodshed is very nearly just a tunnel!  Seriously, it’s looking rather like a polar expedition around here, rather than a farm.

My other running joke lately is that we’re farming in the trenches.  Veritable high-sided louge tracks for the sled are guarded by great mounds of snow banks.  Sometimes it’s hard to know where Mom or Kara are in the farmyard because you can’t see over the sides of the trenches, even though the packed trails raise my shoulders higher than the top of the five-foot woven wire chicken fence.

Just a few days ago, chores turned into an experience of quicksand.  It was evening and quite dark except for the brilliant pin-pricks of stars above.  I entered the frosty-sided chicken coop to sadly find that one of my ladies had died (likely in a fight with another hen over nesting box territory…sometimes freaky things can happen with chickens).  I carefully wrapped her in a feed sack and endeavored to take her out to the old pump house for safe keeping until we could dispose of her properly.

The pump house still has the old hand pump in it but the hand-dug well collapsed years ago thanks to a raucous population of woodchucks.  Long past its days as a milk house, we use the shed to store garden tools, bins, extra boxes, and odds and ends (there always seems to be an endless supply of odds and ends on a farm!).  With my poor deceased chicken wrapped in a feed sack in hand, I faced the silver-sided pump house.  Between me and my destination lay the cliff of snow shoveled away from the front of the barn.  It seemed like rock climbing gear might be necessary, but I bravely embarked up the face, over the edge, and then sank nearly out of sight into the soft drift on the other side.

Hollering for help was to no avail, for the rest of the crew was well off at the Red Barn with belloring rams and the donkey.  Would they hear my snow-muffled cries?  Nope.  So now what?  My left leg twisted behind me, my right leg straight down to the waist in fluff, my arms holding the chicken, this was feeling like a predicament.  I tried to push with one hand against the snow, but it was so soft it too only sunk deep without resistance.  What if I simply disappeared without a trace?  How long would it take someone to find me?

I set the chicken aside with a poof of white, icy fluff and tried rolling on my back, then from side to side, in an effort to pack down some of the snow.  What I really needed was a set of snowshoes, but those were quite a ways away…all the way back at the house.  So, my mind raced, how could I make instant snowshoes to get out of this drowning mess?  It’s amazing the odd, scary, and funny things you mind can think up when you’re completely stuck in a snowbank.

Managing to pull one knee underneath me, I braced all of my left lower leg and foot into one long knee-to-toe “foot,” then drug my right knee out of the drift.  One bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken, the next bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken.  The process was awkward, to say the least, but I managed to reach the shed (thankfully the door opened inward), deposit my package, and wade back to the safety of the shoveled walk, plopping down panting.

Mom and Kara rounded the bend with a sled full of hay bales, their water buckets clanging.  “What has been taking you so long?”

Well, I tell you, this has sure been a winter for extreme chores.  And yes, Farmstead Creamery is shoveled out too, so you can always come on over for fresh greens, eggs, pastured meats, delicious bakery goods, and more.  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


Crazy Cold

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it’s colder than colder than cold outside today.  Schools are canceled across the state and even in Chicago, eight hours driving time to the south.  A pure arctic blast sweeps across the Northland, plummeting temperatures so low they kill the outdoor digital thermometer—never to rise from the grave again.  Why they sell such a wimpy model up here, who knows!

Even though it’s too cold for the school kids to venture outside, I still have chores to do.  Bundling up for 50-below wind-chill weather is no small task, layering on 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, headband, hat, scarf, and the new chopper mittens I got for Christmas.  It only takes 15 minutes for skin to be frost bitten in this weather, so I peer through a mere slit in my downy attire, like a medieval knight armed against the warring weather.

Alternately, life inside the heated aquaponics greenhouse (when the sun is shining and the eager green plants offer their mid-winter oxygen high) sits snug and steaming in the morning sun.  Shuffling about with a watering can or bending to pull a head of fresh lettuce in this little micro-climate seems like a blissful heaven compared to the frigid world between my back door and the chicken coop.

Our winding, trudged-down trails make navigating the farm an interesting endeavor, especially when the winds drift them over in places.  Accidentally stepping off the trail as my glasses fog over from steamy breath, I find myself in the less-than-amusing predicament of sinking in over my knee. 

Yes, I remind myself, I like Wisconsin winters…really I do.  Every type of weather has to be good for something, right?  How about surviving this cold means no flea beetles attacking the broccoli this summer, ok?  No cucumber bugs?  No Colorado potato beetles?  How about no ticks?  I’d take that as a fair exchange for freezing my eyelashes together while doing chores the first week in January.

But you know it’s getting bad when the hairs in your nose freeze together too, beneath your scarf!  Inside the non-insulated chicken coop, though, it’s nearly 20 degrees (above zero), due to the 130 little warm, feathery bodies inside, south-facing windows, and the bright sunshine today.  At 42 BTUs per chicken, the ladies are helping keep each other warm.  But I notice that the heated waterer is being cantankerous, its rim frozen solid, which means I get to lug the beast to the farm house bathtub to thaw it out…again.

Yes, I tell myself, winter has good qualities.  I actually get to have some sleep because the sun sets before ten o’clock in the evening.  I’m not being eaten alive by mosquitoes.  There are no weeds to pull.  And I’m not making hay in 90-degree mugginess.  Yes, I remind myself, this is an improvement.  Can you feel the enthusiasm before it freezes over?

The ice building up on the inside of my polar fleece scarf is becoming suffocating.  Goodness, it’s crazy cold out here today.  I can tell by the biting westerly wind that it’s best to dash between buildings rather than stay out long—or at least when you can.  But now we have to jump-start the car again because the battery died in the cold.  Oh goodness, where is a warm dog when you need one!

But none of the dogs are eager to stay outside long.  They hop on three legs, then two.  Our little dog Sophie wonders if she can hop back to the house on one leg, her paws are so cold.  They’d much rather curl up in their soft doggie beds on the heated basement floor.  I can’t blame them, but the chores have to get done sometime.

The sheep have frosty noses, with a light dusting of ice crystals adorning to the edges of their warm wooly coats, just as it clings in frosty tendrils on the wayward wisps of hair escaping around the sides of my face.  In the distance, I can hear the trees popping in the forest, the last bits of sap expanding and splitting the wood from within. 

And here I am, just a medium-sized mammal, floundering around in the snow, bundled up because I haven’t much fur, lugging a half-frozen chicken waterer.  This must be some form of madness!  I’m keeping sub-tropical birds in a little wooden building in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin’s winter—the harshest ever since 1996!  If this crazy cold keeps up much longer, we’ll be watching out for the edge of the oncoming glacier!!!  (Don’t worry, glaciers move rather slow, so you should be able to stay ahead of it.)

But once inside, all warmed by the wood stove with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in hand, the glistening snowiness in the sunshine outside still seems like a magical fairy world.  And out of that ice-blue sky, tiny snowflakes are falling from nowhere, drifting and dancing lazily in the westerly winds.  A chickadee darts to and from the feeder, happy for the sustenance, while the cat watches from within the safety of the window.  The tip of her furry tail twitches, keeping time with her feline thoughts.

But it won’t be long before the sun begins to set, and I’ll pile on the bundle of protective clothing to face this crazy cold for evening chores.  Wasn’t I just out there?  Be safe, stay warm, and hopefully things will be a little bit warmer when we 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


Season Extenders

With 18 inches of snow still tumbling from the skies and sliding off the barn roof in mid-May this year, it’s been my grumble that we sure ought to have earned a late autumn.  We had a nip of frost during that cold and drizzly week in July, but usually the fall freeziness starts up in late August on our farm—which has the pleasure of being nestled in the county’s cold spot.

Fortunately, September has been impressively mild, with the eggplants and peppers still hanging in there.  Covering again to make it through our fifth frost, the dreaded hard freeze still appears a little ways off into October—added time for winter squashes to ripen.  This year, we’ll take every extra day for keeping the garden growing that Nature is willing to grant us.

The Northwoods is notorious for its short growing season.  Grandma always used to say that there was no sense planting much in the garden until Memorial Weekend, well after her family used to have the planting finished on the old family farms in Central Illinois.  And you can be pretty sure, around here, that the ground will be freezing by later October, if not sooner.  Garden into November or harvest Broccoli for Christmas dinner in these parts?  Forget it!

This leaves hearty Northwoods gardeners always on the hunt for creative season extenders.  Our adventures began with cold frames made from insulative bales of hay stacked to form the outline of a square.  The earth below was turned, amended with compost, and sprinkled with lettuce and spinach seeds.  The land sloped gently to the south, facing the low-sky autumn sun.  On top was laid an old glass window in a wooden frame.  This was supposed to catch and keep the warmth of the sun, helping the soil stay above freezing and warm enough for the eager plants to grow.  But the buildup of moisture became a problem, and when that moisture with the added weight of snow load built up on the window pane and froze, the glass broke…and no-one really wants to eat lettuce with bits of glass in it.

So we upgraded to a polycarbonate (corrugated plastic) cold frame from Germany with hinged doors for vents that could rest on the soil sheltered along the south side of the house.  Now we were able to enjoy greens as early as April, and a second late planting of provided salads weeks after the rest of the garden had froze out.  But, while the small size was fine for one family, it didn’t offer us the ability to extend the growing season for our CSA members and clients.

We next tried low-tunnels, which are a method where metal hoops stuck into the ground over the bed of growing plants support a lightweight, breathable fabric.  This system can be used to organically keep plants protected from pests, especially in their early and tender growing phases, as well as insulate against cold temperatures.  But a low tunnel just wasn’t enough to keep the plants safe when the nighttime temperatures dipped into the 20’s.

It was time for more drastic measures!  High tunnels.  Also hoop-like in structure, these season extenders are supported by steel ribs high enough to walk through, encased in plastic film.  Doors on the ends or adjustable roll-up sides offer abilities to control temperature and humidity, as well as air flow.  Close it up through the winter and the ground might never freeze solid inside, making it much warmer in the spring to get plants started.  Open it wide in the summer to allow insect and wind pollination as well as keep the moisture down.  Close it back up on the chilly fall nights to keep the plants safe and growing well into October or even November.  It doesn’t break (like glass) or blow away (like low tunnels), and it can withstand winter snows.

Upon entering the world of high tunnels, we opted to start small to give it a try by ordering a 12 by 24-foot high tunnel kit from FarmTek.  It was our first time working with their systems, amidst the intricacies of run-away Tek screws, cantankerous saddle clamps, and ground augers that had to be dug into the rocky soil rather than twisted.  But after several brave and rigorous months, we had our first high tunnel.  Oh the joy of ratcheting down the top cover and hanging the door as the finishing touch.  A roll-up back flap made it easy to bring in wheel barrel loads of compost or mulch, and in-ground soaker hose irrigation provided necessary water.

In the spring, we hauled out our trays upon trays of seedlings to the high tunnel for hardening off, nestled our cold-sensitive tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants into the sun-warmed soil well before squashes or beans could be planted outside, and kept those plants going well after the garden was ripped out and put to bed at the end of the season.  But the little 12-by-24 soon wasn’t big enough to meet our needs.

It was time for a serious high tunnel project.  The summer of 2011, with the help of our Northland College intern Sarah, we leveled the top end of the garden and erected a 12 by 50-foot plastic film high tunnel.  But you know how it goes—construction projects always take longer than you anticipate.  Our tomato transplants were getting desperate—really desperate—dangling and sprawling from their transplant containers, praying for more room for root growth as they waited for us to finish the project.  The rafters were up and secured in place, but we still didn’t have the cover on, when the tomato desperation went beyond the beyonds.

It was after chores, and it was dark even for a June night.  The summer was getting off to a hot start, and Sarah had been joking about trying “night gardening” to beat the heat.  Only the state of the tomatoes made that proposition no joke that night.  We pulled the truck up to the high tunnel construction sight, turned on the headlights, and planted 150 tomatoes until midnight (with the help of a few mosquitoes).  Sarah didn’t suggest night gardening as a creative idea again after that adventure.

Stringing used baling twine from the rafters down to the plants and securing the strands with ground stakes, the tomato plants were carefully trellised up off the ground in orderly rows with walkways.  That next week, the plastic cover was carefully pulled into place, augmented with roll-up sides and a door on the east end.  It was a pretty satisfying accomplishment for our woman-powered crew, and the frosts didn’t manage to kill those intrepid tomatoes until November that year.  Break out the canning jars!

We’re hoping for such a season now, given the late spring.  The twining Romas and colorful heirloom varieties reach high over my head.  I love the season of autumn, but it’s always hard to see the demise of the garden, with all the time and love that was invested to help it flourish all summer long.  In milder growing climates, like Maine, some farmers are using high tunnels to grow food all year round!  But up here, we’re happy to add a bit more time to both ends of the gardening season in whatever way we can.  Who can help but smile at the first…and last garden ripe tomatoes?  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

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