North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Barn Dance

Circle to the left

And back to the right

Right-hand star

And a left-hand star

 

Do-si-do your corner

Then do-si-do your partner

Circle left, then

Moving couples on you go to the next set!

A few folks who are new to old-time country dancing gently bump into each other, laughing, as the others pull them along.  It’s early evening, and 80-plus adventuresome people have journeyed down the long gravel road to Farmstead Creamery for a night of local fun and flavor in the Locally Grown Summer Music Series. 

The American folks dance band Duck for the Oyster plays beneath a canopy outside, with the historic yet contemporary blends of fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and upright bass.  Blue and red and green lawn chairs scattered in the yard hold everyone from boisterous children as well as white-haired grandparents, while the dancers circle round in the parking lot.  Dragonflies and hummingbirds flit overhead, there is a gentle breeze, and the air is just cool enough to make the dancing quite a pleasurable invigoration.

Lines go forward and lines go back

Right hands round your partner

Then left hands round your partner

Top couple chasses down the line

Then come on back

Reel the set—there we go

And cast off

Cathy (the dance caller) wears her classic red dress and black dance shoes, directing the participants through the different parts of the dance—like building a story in movement, piece by piece.  In the 18th Century, and even into the 19th, dances were often taught by dancing masters that would travel from village to hamlet.  Flamboyant characters, these masters often created quite a stir in the community, especially for the young ladies.

Community dancing was a way to spend time having fun with your neighbors, to meet the new folks in town, or to look for an eligible partner.  Holding a dance at a farmhouse or a barn was a way to celebrate the completion of harvest or other important seasonal transitions.  If you’ve ever been folk dancing, then you’ll know the unique feeling of coming in at the end of a long day, bone weary, only to feel the spizerinktum come back after a whirling session of dance to lively old tunes.

Heel and toe and heel and toe

And slide, slide, slide

Heel and toe and heel and toe

And slide, slide, slide

 

Right-hand clap

Left-hand clap

Both-hand clap

Clap your knees

Circle round, then change partners!

Sometimes we Midwestern folks can get a bit hesitant to dance together.  We don’t get many chances to dance together, we feel awkward, and what might other people think of us!  But at a barn dance, it doesn’t matter when you last danced.  It doesn’t matter if you know the steps because everyone’s happy to help you learn, and there’s no fancy footwork involved.  Feel the rhythm of the music and the pressure on your hand from your partner, and just enjoy moving together, laughing together, and being together.

The other magical part of barn dancing comes by working with your partner.  Whether it’s the same person throughout the dance or it changes after each round of the melody, you get to learn something about them through the strength or warmth in their hands, their boldness or fluidness of movement, their smile.  Swings, when executed with confidence, give you that moment of centripetal force that one person alone cannot achieve.  Harkening back before the days of roller-coaster rides, this moment of pull and twirl must have been a special thrill.

Forward, two, three, pivot

And back, two, three, four

Forward, two, three, pivot

And back, two, three, four

 

Step together, step apart

Put the ladies to the middle

Step together, step apart

Under the arch to your new partner

The music gradually begins to quicken.  Some of the listeners are clapping along, while two of the little girls hop from side to side next to Grandma, in rhythm with the dancers.  The sun is slowly sinking behind the farm, casting golden shafts of light over the tops of the trees.  Then the music stops, everyone claps, and it is time for the groups of twos and threes and fours to pack up their lawn chairs and saunter back to their cars.  Everyone is chatting, shaking hands, and calling, “See you next time!”  Perhaps this has been an evening they will remember for many years.

Have you made it to a barn dance yet?  Sweep off the floor, grab your dancing shoes, and come to the gathering.  You just might surprise yourself by discovering something you didn’t know you enjoyed.  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

 

 
 

A Time for Music

Music and rural living have a long history.  Shepherds passed the time playing flutes out in the pastures; country folks came together, linked hands, and danced to fiddle tunes; and often there was singing in the fields.  This ancient view of music was integrated into everyday life and was the common property of all.  Music accompanied important cyclical ceremonies and helped occupy the mind during drudgeries.

Today, alas, music has been mostly consigned to either life on a pedestal through formal concerts (in designated buildings at designated times) or blared from our truck radios.  Music is made by “someone else” for us, and we are mere consumers.  The folk idea of making music together is, well, seen as a bit quaint and certainly old-fashioned.

But there are reasons for the folk music process.  Rhyme and meter are excellent ways to remember a story, facets of one’s task, or cultural values.  Songs like “Bringing in the Sheaves” reminds us of the joy in the harvest—the fruits of one’s labors coming to fruition through the helping hand of nature.  It comes from the collective experience of the people, not the market motivations of commercialism.

Bringing in the sheaves

Bringing in the sheaves

We will come rejoicing

Bringing in the sheaves

Music is also incredibly therapeutic and stimulating.  Studies recently reported on National Public Radio have shown that even one year of learning an instrument results in noticeable brain development resulting, over time, in the higher amounts of gray matter.  Music utilizes a variety of parts of the brain at the same time—even singing reaches across the hemispheres to areas other than the speech center.  Therapies that utilize singing have helped some brain trauma survivors (like Arizona senator Gabrielle Giffords) to reclaim their ability to speak.  Group music sessions have also gained remarkable results with Alzheimer’s patients.

Some agricultural studies have looked at the stimulus of music with livestock or plants.  Dairy parlors might play classical symphonies, while a greenhouse might prefer jazz.  Whether or not the particular type of music is preferable to the plants or animal (or really the caretakers) is a continued point of study, but our sheep don’t mind an occasional acapella song during chores.  It helps them know we’re coming, so they don’t spook when the barn door opens.

A particular ancient instrument that I play—the harp—has been closely linked with healing.  Mayo Clinic has a “therapy harp” program, where trained harpers visit hospital patients to share soothing music.  The particular wave frequencies of sound made by harps have a special calming and therapeutic affect for both the listener and performer. 

Here are a few stories to share about animals and harps.  Even during my first days of practicing this instrument, our small dog Sophie would stop whatever she was doing and try to sit as close as possible to me and the harp and promptly fall asleep.  Practicing classical guitar, hammer dulcimer, or other instruments does not produce the same affect.  No matter what corner of the house, Sophie has to come and sit next to the harp.

This last winter, we acquired a new household companion—a black and orange cat from the Humane Society named Pumpkin.  Sleek and intelligent, Pumpkin is fascinated by everything in our home, from the baby goat in the basement and the chickens outside the bedroom window to the back nooks of the root cellar.  Our various projects are also fascinating—the tumbling ball of yarn while Kara knits or the little wooden pieces on the “Nine Men’s Morris” game board.

Projects are everywhere in our house, but this is normal for us.  Since my sister and I embarked on a Montessori learning style from an early age, having a house full of creative and imaginative projects from building performance costumes to designing Farmstead Creamery & Café have been an integral part of our daily experience.  Currently, our living room and kitchen have been transformed into a recording studio as Tom Draughon of Ashland and I work on our acoustic Christmas album “Season of Delight.”  The tangle of microphone cables and speakers are not ingratiating for hosting company or cooking supper—but that’s what Farmstead Creamery is for.

The other day, I was practicing for our upcoming recording session of the Latin carol “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” (O Come, O Come Emmanuel), which is paired with a delightful Shetland air traditional to Christmas morning called “Da Day Dawn.”  Sophie had taken up her position in a nearby recliner, fast asleep, when Pumpkin sidled into the room.  She sat there, just a few steps away, her green eyes wide and ears perked forward.  She watched my hands, looked at me, looked at the harp, looked at my hands.  This continued several minutes.  Then, convinced she had the whole thing figured out, she began purring loudly and rubbing on the base of the harp and my ankles until the practice session was complete.  I was itching with static electricity, but the cat was thoroughly enjoying herself.

A few days later, I was working through recording this same harp part, editing, and then laying down a vocal track over the harp accompaniment.  Pumpkin had lain content on the sofa during the harp recording and editing session, but during the singing (when the harp is muted through the speakers), she leapt over and began tussling with the headphone cable, batting at my leg until I would look at her, then reached over and batted the harp, as if to say “Hey, you, play more of THIS!” 

Pumpkin had her opinion, apparently.  Hopefully it was not a reflection on my singing!  When the CD is released later this year, you can take a listen and offer your own opinion.

At North Star Homestead Farms, we work to make music part of the agrarian experience.  From our winter season of harvest dinners and concerts, we will be expanding this year to offer a four-part outdoor Locally Grown Summer Music Series, which will feature local, acoustic talent at Farmstead Creamery & Café.  Held on Sunday afternoons and open to all to attend, here are the dates to save:  June 30th, July 21st, August 11th, and September 1st.  Updates and details can be found on our website and the “calendar” feature.

Make music part of your agrarian experience this year by joining us for one of these events or finding ways to encourage musicianship in your area.  Dust off your old instrument or learn a new tune this week, 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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Maple Syrup Memories

Finally, the weather has been just about right:  warm, sunny days without a wind that causes the snow to melt in rings around the base of the trees, followed by clear, frosty nights that harden the snow to a stiff crust.  The birds seem to sing robustly and there are new voices—the Phoebe calls from the crest of the barn roof, proclaiming his territory.  And there is the subtle drip-drip of melting snow off the edge of the shed roof.

The maple trees are thinking of spring as well.  All winter, they have hoarded their sugary reserves deep in their roots, waiting for the warming sun to awaken the buds at the furthest tips of their branches.  Gray and angular, they have waited this long winter, and now they are primed and ready.  Up goes the sap in the warm daytime, then back down again to the roots when the night’s frost is too strong.

The same solar stimulus that excited the maple trees also awakens those hearty northerners who bundle up to trudge through the remaining snow with a bucket full of taps, a sled full of pails, a hammer, a crowbar (for the ones you didn’t put in right on the first try), and a trusty drill.  It’s time for the “sugaring” season in the Northwoods—time to crawl out of our winter hovels and spend some time in the woods snitching a bit of that tasty sap on its way up…or on its way down.

But syruping is a finicky business.  Some days, the sap will flow enough to pull the buckets right off the taps.  Other days, conditions will be grand but the buckets lie empty.  Tap too soon and the holes can heal over before the trees really get going.  Tap too late and you miss the leading edge of the run, which makes the lightest syrup.  Have a bit of a wind or too much rain, and who knows what will happen.  If the temperatures don’t get warm enough in the day or stay too warm at night, there’s little hope for a good crop.  After a bad drought, it’s best not to tap at all.

Harvesting sap is a bit like asking the maple trees for a blood donation.  Folks who know what they’re doing have an inkling for how many taps a tree can sustain, without asking too much.  Hearty, spreading grandfather trees might reverently be called “Old Nine-Buckets,” while a new initiate will start with just one bucket.  Over the summer, the holes from the taps heal closed, with little more of a scar than a visit from a woodpecker.

Learning how to make maple syrup is one of those processes that is best begun as an apprentice.  Our training-in process was with Jim and Jerry, two northwoods characters who couldn’t help but get an itch when spring was on the way.  Our tools were primitive in the beginning—a hand-crank antique drill, repurposed cooking oil jugs, a couple ice-cream buckets full of plastic T’s and taps, and some clear hosing.  A home-made boiling pan run with propane sent billows of steam into the crisp air from its tarp-enclosed shelter near the edge of the woods.  We lugged buckets across the yard and into the back of our van.  Those five-gallon buckets looked much bigger then…but I was a bit smaller, as well.

While Jerry was a close neighbor, Jim lived down the road apiece, on a spot overlooking two lakes.  His yard was a majestic stand of sugar maples, and we would go and help Jim tap the trees while he followed along on his put-put lawn tractor with the little cart behind full of supplies.  Jim would lean on the steering wheal, chuckling, and offering advice.

“You gonna tap that oak tree too?” he teased.

“What?” I stood up, all set to start cranking the creaky drill with the half-worn wooden handle.  I take a moment to look at the tree closer.  “Oh…” and we both laugh.

“Seems like you were gonna tap that tree last year too!  Not sure you’d get much, though.”

Every day, Jim would take the little put-put around with the trailer behind and pick up the day’s sap.  We could see his little blue car curving up the slushy driveway and quickly throw on some boots to come out and meet him. 

“Well girls,” he’d say, that gypsy twinkle in his eyes.  “Didn’t get much today, I think.”  Then he’d pop the latch to his trunk and there would be 10 buckets in there, full to the top.  We could hardly get them out! 

“Aw sure, Jim,” we’d tease right back.  And while Jim didn’t eat much syrup himself, he was always giving pints as gifts to nurses and neighbors and other folks who helped him out since his wife had passed.  You knew it was that time of year when the phone would ring and that Santa Claus voice on the other end would begin, “Well, girls…”

Jerry had his own particular ways of doing things, and they were very scientific too—about as scientific as watching the drip off a wooden spoon.  And not just any spoon would do, it had to be this special one, which had probably been in the maple syrup service since before my grandmother was born.

“Now, you see the curl on the end?” he’d insist, pointing at the spoon.

“On the end of what?”

“On the end of the drip—the drip that’s left hanging on the spoon.  It’s got to have that curl, or it isn’t ready yet.” 

I’d squint at it a bit while he gave the spoon a good stir in the fragrant, thick liquid. 

“No sense in wasting good jars on thin syrup.”

But syrup that is too thick won’t do you any service either—forget trying to match the consistency of the corn-based stuff in the store.  Too high a sugar content and it can’t stay in solution.  One batch of syrup we canned one spring years back made rock candy on the bottom of the jar.  Not that this was such a bad thing…except we couldn’t get the candy out without breaking the jars.

But there’s nothing quite like the smell of a boiling pan of clear sap, watching that curling steam weave its way out into the early spring air…or the taste of the year’s first syrup on a stack of multi-grain pancakes on a frosty morning.  While we haven’t made maple syrup on our farm in a few years (losing Jim to cancer rather took the wind out of the process), the early signs of spring bring back the fond memories of neighbors lending a hand in the sugaring process, the sound of the wind in the maple branches, and the taste of homemade maple syrup still hot from the vat.

Here’s a delicious way to enjoy maple syrup beyond pancakes and waffles.

Maple-Glazed Salmon

1 salmon fillet

¼ cup Wisconsin maple syrup

1 tsp. paprika

1 pinch cayenne, salt, and pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Whisk together the glaze and brush over the fillet.  Place on a greased pan skin-side down and bake for 10 minutes.  Brush with more of the glaze and bake for a remaining 3 to 5 minutes or until done.  Serve on rice or couscous with fresh greens.  Enjoy!

As Jerry would say, “That will sweeten you up.”  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 Scoop on CSAs

Maybe you’ve heard a bit of the buzz or maybe you have even been a member of one, but CSAs are becoming an increasingly popular way to build connections with your local farmer and enjoy great, fresh, seasonal foods.  If you’re wondering what in tarnation is a CSA, read on to discover more about this exciting program.

CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture” and is organized like a membership in the farm’s produce.  Interested families purchase a “share” in the early part of the year (when farmers are shortest on revenue to kick-start the season), which ensures a certain quota of whatever the farm produces through the growing season.  This bounty is distributed in a weekly “box” (or bag or other clever vessel) to members either at the farm or at designated pickup locations.  Because CSA members have paid ahead for this service, picking and saving goods and produce for them comes ahead of other venues, such as farmer’s markets.

But unlike a farmer’s market (which operates like a micro grocery), CSA members typically do not pick and choose what they desire.  Instead, it’s more like receiving a Christmas box from the farm each week, with a mix of familiar and new goodies to discover.  A weekly newsletter with updates from the farm, a list of the week’s features, and recipes can be helpful for folks who are new to Swiss Chard or Broccoli Raab.  Sometimes, folks discover something they never knew they liked!

This process also involves trust—trust that the farmer will choose an appropriate mix of foods for the box each week.  Some folks have a hard time giving up the control of shopping off of their weekly list, and a CSA program is not the right fit for them.  We’ve found that these families try the program for one year and then say, “Well, we’ll just shop at the farmer’s market next year.”  Sadly, very few keep the promise.

Culinary flexibility can actually be exciting.  Learning to cook with the seasons is as easy as the recipe in the newsletter or a quick Google search.  And just about anything can be put together in a sauté pan with a little tortellini, bacon, or cheese for a great and quick lunch.  The ideal way to utilize a CSA share is to see what you get for the week and then plan the meals and any auxiliary shopping around it.   One year, a single fellow purchased a share for the summer season and found it an extremely economical way to eat great food far into the winter because he was able to freeze, dry, or store away extras.  He still had potatoes into March!

At North Star Homestead Farms, we’ve been offering CSA shares since 2007.  For many years, this has been in the very traditional form of full or half shares in the garden—veggies, fruits, and fresh herbs overflowed canvass totes each week from mid-June through the end of September.  But as with many of our endeavors, we wanted to take the CSA idea to the next level.  Some farms offer a “meat” CSA—a weekly mix of pork, lamb, poultry, or beef from their farm.  Others offer eggs in their CSA program.  There were many possibilities floating around in the world of sustainable agriculture.

To start, because of our new aquaponics greenhouse (where we raise tilapia and greens) we are now able to offer fresh produce year-round.  Our CSA members have often moaned at the end of the traditional growing season that facing the grocery produce after a summer of our fresh-off-the-farm veggies is a major letdown.  Expanding the CSA to a year-round process meant that local food could be an option, even in mid-winter.

The only trouble with offering a winter CSA program was that, while fresh lettuce, kale, chard, kohlrabi, herbs, endive, arugula, bok-choy, radishes, and more might be available, it still wasn’t possible to grow the other vegetables that help bulk out a week’s box—zucchinis, cucumbers, eggplants, carrots, green beans, and more.  What else, instead, could we offer? 

What developed is our “Winter Pantry CSA,” which utilizes many aspects of our farm’s value-added products, including:  bakery items (bread, cookies, bagels, muffins, etc.), pantry items (jams, honey, granola, mixes, etc.), eggs, and cuts of grass-fed meat.  We were also able to network with other area farms like Springbrook Organic Dairy and Crystal Ball Organic Dairy to feature milk, yogurt, and cheeses as well.  It was a basketful of delightful farm goodies, along with fresh produce from the greenhouse and storage produce from the root cellar, including winter squash, onions, garlic, and potatoes.

The new program received such a positive response that we decided to extend the option through the rest of the year.  But folks always like to have choices so they can find an option that works best for them.  Our present “omnivore share” includes all the items listed above.  The “vegetarian share” is the same, excepting the cut of meat.  Then there is also a “garden share” which is very similar to the traditional half share in the garden.

But some folks go away in the winter, and some leave on long vacations in the summer, so how would a year-long CSA program work for them?  In the past, a CSA share was for a whole growing season (typically 16 weeks in the Northland), and if you couldn’t make it to a pickup, you gave it away to a friend or neighbor.  But given our customer feedback, we structured a new system that allows members to pick the dates they want, as well as the style of share.  You can sign up just during the summertime, every other week, once a month, or whatever works best for you.  You could even choose to have the omnivore share some weeks and a garden share on others.  It’s entirely up to you!  The program caps off at the first 15 families that sign up for any particular date that is available (otherwise we might find ourselves filling 50 boxes on one day and 2 on the next).

It must be understood, however, that belonging to a CSA not only gives you the opportunity to share in the bounty of the farm but also in the risk.  Despite the best efforts of the farmer, surprises can always happen.  A hale storm can devastate a crop that was almost ready to harvest, high winds can break plants or blow away all the blossoms, or a freak frost can destroy the apple harvest.  It’s one of those everyday hazards of farming.  But being a member in a CSA gives you a chance to directly support a farming family of your choice, to learn their story and the rhythms of their work and harvest.

Even if you don’t live in this area, please explore CSA options through local farms.  Not sure where to look?  The website www.localharvest.org is a great place to start.  Type in your Zip Code anywhere in the U.S. to begin researching small farms, farmer’s markets, and more in your area.  If these farms offer CSA programs, this will be listed on their “bio” as well as other unique offerings they may have—you-pick berries, value-added products, or farm tours.

Early spring is a great time to sign up for CSA shares.  Remember that for every dollar that is given to a farmer, at least 90 cents stays in the community.  Your support makes a difference towards the future of sustainable agriculture and the families who are devoting their lives and efforts to make wholesome, local, and organic foods available to everyone right now. 

Do you know where your food comes from?  Do you know the story of the people who grew or raised it?  Joining a CSA is a unique and adventuresome way to say “yes!” to all of these.  Are you ready for a culinary adventure?  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

 

 
 

On Being Neighborly

On these blustery cold days and shivery cold nights, sometimes we can feel a bit cooped up in our homes, huddling by the wood stove with a dog or two close at hand for added warmth.  Chores begin by encasing oneself with copious amounts of wooly or downy armor against the frigid winds—leaving only one’s peering eyes with frost-edged lashes open to the elements.  Even the chickens huddle as puffed-up balls in the coops, their taloned toes firmly tucked inside their down. 

Winter can create its own sense of isolation, as if everything outside stops, hunkers down, and waits for the warmth of springtime to reawaken.  I think the “settling in” of winter happens to everyone up here in the Northland, burst open at times by the overwhelming sense of “cabin fever” needing release. 

Things have been quiet on the farm and at Farmstead Creamery & Café as well.  This allows the luxury of leisurely chats with the brave clients who do venture forth amidst the ice or wind.  Except, that is, for the days when cabin fever reigns and the Creamery is unexpectedly packed by community member who simply cannot stay inside any longer.

Back in the day, cabin fever was tempered by the knowledge that winter was the time for “visiting.”  Farm families would finish up the morning chores, hitch the team to a sleigh, and go off to spend the day with neighbors—share a hearty meal, play games, tell stories, or bring over a favorite portable instrument and dance together.

Grab your fiddle and grab your bow

Circle round and Do-si-do

First to the right and then to the left

Then to the one that you love best.

 

Get outa the way for old Dan Tucker

He’s too late to get his supper

Supper’s over and dinner is a cookin’

Old Dan Tucker just a-stands there lookin’.

Having something to do together was helpful as well—maple sugaring in the early spring, splitting wood in late autumn, quilting bees in between.  And even if a particular project wasn’t apparent, bringing over a fresh pie or needing to borrow a cup of sugar could make an excellent excuse for spending the rest of the afternoon in good company.

Today, as I drive home from an evening event, I can’t help but notice that the glowing rectangle of wide-screen TVs appears to be the company we keep in wintertime.  No wonder cabin fever abounds!  Turn off that chatterbox and get neighborly again.  Here are a few practical ideas to get you started.

Invite a friend on a snowshoe hike in the woods (or other quiet recreational activity).  Few people like going out alone in the winter, but with a friend there’s plenty of thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams to share as you enjoy the outdoors together.

Find a way to swap work.  Everyone has a project they’ve been meaning to get to but it just works better with a helper or two.  Whether this is painting a room, finishing a quilt, cleaning out the garage, or hanging new curtains, offer to help a neighbor with a project if they’ll help you with one as well.  You’ll both be active, have company, and feel good about making progress on the “to do” list.

Offer to help an elderly neighbor.  Winter is tough for everyone, but it’s hardest for our elders.  If you can, lend a hand with shoveling walkways, pick up a few extra things for them in town, or just stop by to give them company.  If you are an elder, invite folks over for a hot drink and “a little something” while they help make the winter a little easier for you.  Remind folks that it’s good to have a break from the normal business of their lives.

And, of course, there is the tried-and-true method of stopping by with a freshly baked homemade pie.  In farm country, you can’t hope to go visiting without either bringing or receiving something to eat (if not both).  Sharing nourishment is part of sharing the camaraderie and trust that is part of neighborliness.

Not convinced?  Well, you’re certainly welcome to improvise your own methods for breaking cabin fever with the folks who live near you.  Throw a party, host a house concert, pick a day each week to meet at the kitchen table with tea and a deck of cards—whatever appeals to you as good, old-fashioned fun together.  If you find yourself wondering who some of your neighbors are, winter might be an opportune time to find out.  Remember, hot pies or cookies with a smile open doors.

Sometimes we get to know our neighbors by accident.  Recently, friends of ours whom live down the road a bit were heading in to town for a live performance.  There were four tickets but three attendants (the fourth was ill), so they called us up to see if we’d like to come along.  On the dark and wintry ride into town, they recollected their first adventure on the farm.

“We like driving down the back roads.  We knew this had a “dead end” sign on it, but we thought, why not?  So here we were on this gravel road, and we meet this tall, elderly gentleman walking a little white dog.  We waved and he waved and we kept on going.

“When we got to the corner, we could see that the road ended in a farm and didn’t go any farther, so we turned around and came back.  But along the way, we met your Grandpa with the little white dog again.  We apologized for bothering their place, but he said, “Oh no, not at all, come on down and see my farm.”  So we turned around again and learned more about what was going on back here—we had no idea.  Who knew there were folks still farming out here?”

So turn off the TV, kick up your heels, and shake off those winter-time blues with folks who are just as shut inside with this cold and wind as you.  Maybe you don’t know them yet, and maybe you do, but being neighborly certainly doesn’t hurt one’s spirits during the dark time of year.  We can each create greater cheer together as we muster on until the warming days of spring.  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

 
 

Never and Idle Hand

Being asked the question, “How do you have time to do all these things?!” is not an uncommon occurrence on our farm.  From livestock to gardens, farmer’s market to making gelato, balancing the many layers of endeavors at North Star Homestead can be an adventure in itself.

“But when do you have time for making art?” they ask, noticing the busy lunch hour, the coming and goings of summer interns, and the rigors of growing produce and fresh fish year-round.  “Do you ever sleep?”

In the summer I would laugh and reply, “That’s what winter is for,” pick up the dishes and offer descriptions of the day’s desserts.  For generations, winter on the farmstead has been the time for mending, planning, and all those projects that just don’t fit into the hectic summer schedule.

In the days of the one-room school houses, school sessions were originally in winter and summer, allowing students to help on the farm during the rigorous spring plantings and autumn harvest seasons.  On our farm, the time to “catch a little breath” doesn’t start until November, when the ground freezes solid and there is no more to be done for the gardens until spring.  The animals are snug in their winter quarters, and most of the area summer residents have headed to warmer climates.

But in true thrifty farm tradition, winter does not become a time to languish sleepily in front of the fire all day.  Heavens, there are so many things to do!  So many skills we love to use that we simply can’t make time for in the summer.  Yes, there still is the mending and the planning and pouring over the seed catalogue, but the luxury of the slow season allows waiting creativity to curl out of hiding and find expression in a variety of projects, whether it is working on one of my tapestries, crocheting a hat, knitting a sweater, or finishing a quilt.

The work of women’s hands to create functional form (clothing) out of string (and, likewise, string out of fluff) is an ancient tradition stretching back roughly 20,000 years.  Pick-it-up, put-it-down projects that did not endanger children naturally leant themselves to women’s occupations, including spinning, weaving, and sewing.  Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of her mother working on patchwork quilts during long winter nights, while her father played beloved folk tunes on the violin.  Not only were these quilts functional but they also held their own aesthetic appeal.

Working on fiber-related projects in the winter is also a great time for socializing in a season when ice, snow, and freezing temperatures can keep us cooped up in our homes.  Quilting B’s were once an excellent way to bring women (and sometimes men) together for a meaningful project embroidered with friendly discussion.  Today, knitting groups often serve a similar purpose, bringing friends together over clicking needles—attendants helping each other troubleshoot difficult patterns or learn a new stitch.

Sometimes the demands of winter, however, can push against the yearnings for time with a crochet hook or embroidery needle.  The bag of yarn may nestle in the closet for years, piled high with “I’ll get to that later.”  Making community time each week for folks to get together and dust off those projects is one way to reconnect with the ancient rhythms of our agrarian past.  To facilitate this, at Farmstead Creamery & Café we’ll be staying open late on Thursdays, from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm, for “Fiber Nights.”  Feel free to bring your knitting, crocheting, weaving, spinning, tatting, quilting, sewing, or any type of fiber-related handwork you enjoy.  Come when it works for you, share stories with friends, and enjoy having time to do what you love.

“When you do what you love, you can do a lot of it,” is one of my mantras when faced with the ever-present question of how we do all that we do on the farm.  But doing it all doesn’t necessarily mean doing it all at once.  It reminds me of a conversation at Goddard College, in Vermont, where I did my graduate studies in interdisciplinary arts.

We were discussing the meaning of “rigor.”  Some students and a few advisors were vehement that rigor was distinctly tied into daily practice.  If one was not working on a tapestry loom every day, then hers was not a rigorous weaving practice.  My argument was different, and I based it on the lived experience of farming.  Yes, rigor does involve a concerted effort and a dedication of considerable time over a prolonged period, but it doesn’t need to be each and every day.

For instance, maple syruping is a rigorous pursuit.  It takes concerted effort—trudging into the woods with taps and buckets, trudging out with pails of sap, boiling for hours, and finally bottling with care.  It also takes considerable time over a prolonged period (if it’s a good season, especially).  But I can’t make maple syrup in October, even if I wanted too.  It has its season, just as one’s art practice can.   Attempting to syrup out of season would be about as productive as hosting a quilting intensive in the middle of lambing time.  To everything there is a season.

There is something rhythmic and relaxing to drawing weft through warp or looping a stitch one row at a time that is in harmony with the quiet of wintertime.  It leaves the mind open to reflection or peaceful meditation.  Working with fibers is part of the magic of creating something from almost nothing—a comfy sweater from a ball of yarn—which is not unlike the magic of agricultural life—a thriving tomato plant from a tiny seed or a lamb born from its attendant mother.  Each is uniquely creative, and each is valued on the homestead.

Maybe it’s been a long time since you last made a scarf for a friend, or perhaps you are in the midst of finishing an afghan—either way, I hope this winter will bring you joy through relaxing, creative work.  Maybe it’s time to pick up something new and learn a craft that has been close to the hearthside for many ages.  It’s better than sitting with idle hands, waiting for the snow to melt (or fall).  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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