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