North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Oh Groundhog

I’m imagining some fat, brown, furry rodent, all snug and cuddled in its warm little burrow, curled into a comfy circle of slumber.  Then an entourage of persons wearing top hats arrive with pomp and ceremony, dig the poor fellow out of his hole, and proclaim across the news whether or not the unsuspecting creature has seen its shadow.

The sun is shining!  Oh dear, six more weeks of winter!

Considering last year’s weather patterns, when an 18-inch snow dump pummeled the farm in mid-May, this sounds like we’d be getting off easy.  Let’s see, six weeks would take us not even to the end of March.  Does this sound terribly plausible, given this frigid and snowy winter?  I’m not holding my breath.  Besides, did anyone actually ask the groundhog if he had bothered to look at his shadow?

Equally, it could have been noticed by any the ceremonial folks in top hats that the trees, the cars, or they themselves were casting shadows, and there was hardly any need to bother a sleepy, rotund rodent with the whole affair.  What did it matter to the groundhog?  If they’re anything like the wood chucks that used to sit all fat and sassy in the barn door, they’re smart enough to come out when spring has officially arrived all on their own, without any particular human meteorological proclamation.  And in the meantime, they know exactly where you store your feed…

But winter isn’t entirely a season for moaning and groaning about how long we have to go before the earth warms, the snow melts, and the grass needs mowing again.  Personally, I’m enjoying every day that chicken chores do not include being attacked by a perilous swarm of mosquitoes, awaiting wood ticks, or biting gnats!  It’s the little things like this that sometimes become forgotten in the endless hours of shoveling.

But if you’re still stuck in a mood of doom and gloom over the groundhog’s shadow-seeing exploits, here’s a folk tale about animals in wintertime to bring a bit of cheer.

How Bear Got His Short Tail

Of course, there are lots of stories about Bear.  That’s because Bear was really rather vain.  Everywhere he went, Bear was showing off his big, long, bushy, black tail.  “See!” demanded Bear.  “Don’t you like my tail?!” 

The other animals cowered away, nodding, “Oh yes, Mr. Bear, we love your tail.  It’s the best tail in the whole forest.”  That’s because they knew that brother Bear would get very angry if they didn’t agree, no matter what their personal opinion on tails might be.

But Fox had had quite enough of Bear’s antics.  She too had a long, bushy tail, all sleek and curving with a white tip.  Of course, hers was really the best tail of all, but there was no telling that to Bear.  One of these days, he was going to need to learn his lesson for being so prideful.

It was wintertime when Fox made her plan.  Down to the lake she went with rod and reel, and after cutting a hole in the ice of the lake, she fished most of the morning.  She fished and fished and fished until she had a whole stringerful of graceful, sleek northern and perch and walleye.  Stashing her tackle, she sauntered back up the bank of the lake, humming a pleasing tune to herself.

Bear just happened to be passing by, and the pungent smell of fresh fish caught his attention.  “Fox, say Fox, how did you get all those lovely fish, I say?”

“With my tail,” she grinned, blinking her long, foxy lashes.

“With your tail?”  Bear’s lips were dripping.  Those fish looked so delicious.  With great force of self-will, he just barely held back from swiping the whole lot away from Fox.

She dangled the stringer, teasingly.  “It’s easy, really.  I’m surprised at you, Bear, what with your long and illustrious tail, that you don’t already know how to fish this way.”

“Um, uh, well…”  Bear was trying to hide his ignorance on the subject.  “Maybe you could remind me.  I’m sure it’s just the winter sleepiness that has made the trick slip my mind.”

“Well,” Fox began, speaking low so as not to spoil the secret on other small ears in the forest.  “Take that big claw of yours and cut a nice hole in the ice, big enough so your tail can fit through.  Then slip your tail down in that hole and wiggle just the tip, real gentle.  The fish will think it’s bait, and they’ll bite your tail.  It will hurt just a little bit, but when you feel them biting, pull out your tail, and you’ll have a fish!”

Bear was so excited, he didn’t even bother to thank Fox.  Down the banks of the lake he tumbled, until his big, black form skidded out onto the ice.  “Ha ha!” he chuckled to himself.  How silly of Fox to give away her fishing secrets.  If Fox could catch a stringer full of fish in just a morning, why, he would work all day and catch twice as many—no three times as many fish as she!  Why, with his wondrous tail (the best in the whole forest), how could the fish resist?

He took that big claw of his and cut a circle in the ice, just as Fox had said, then sidled backwards and dropped that big, black tail into the hole.  The water was COLD, oh it was COLD!  But Bear gritted his teeth and twitched that tail ever so gentle.  “Ouch!” he yelped, then covered his mouth, for he mustn’t spoil this new secret he had learned.  That must have been a fish bite.  Should he pull his tail out now?  No!  He should wait for another one—ouch—and another one—ouch—and another one.  Surely, if he just waited long enough, his entire tail would be covered in fish, and he’d have them all to eat at once!  The thought pleased Bear very much indeed.

But when Bear finally decided the pull in the catch, he found himself stuck.  That tail wouldn’t come out!  He pulled and tugged and pulled and tugged.  Surely, this must be a lot of fish indeed!  They must be plugging up the hole in the ice and not coming through!  Straining even harder, Bear tried one last time and them, POP, found himself face-first in a snowbank.

All the forest animals began to howl with laughter because Fox had told them to come to the edge of the woods and see.  And when Bear looked behind him, instead of finding the ice covered in fresh fish, there was his tail, frozen solid into the lake. 

Horrified with embarrassment over the loss of his tail and being so foolishly taken by Fox’s story, Bear ran deep into the woods to hide.  And that is how Bear got his short tail.  But remember not to ask Bear to share this story because he still hides in shame each winter in remembrance of the day Fox tricked him so.

***

Oh groundhog, stay in the warm little burrow and wait until spring.  We humans, in the meantime, will keep on shoveling and telling stories about our wild animal friends.  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

 
 

Independence on the Homestead

This week, as we mark the anniversary of signing our nation’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain (though I believe King George didn’t get to read it until three weeks later due to the 18th Century lack of email and texting), I am reminded of the many ways in which an independent spirit manifests in the life and practices of homesteaders past and present. 

In 1776, the majority of the American population devoted itself to agriculture, and the agrarian ethos wove its way into the founding paradigms of the upstart compilation of states.  Good old do-it-yourself was part of the bootstrapping courage that gave these former colonists the chutzpa to bid the Mother Country adieu and then fight for that decision.  The independent spirit of this bygone era continues today through the contemporary homesteading tradition.

Growing and preserving your own foods is a crucial pillar in a homesteader’s independence.  Vegetable gardens, orchards, herb patches, and wild edibles in the woods filled pantries, larders, root cellars, and attics in the fall.  People dried, salted, pickled, fermented, and canned foods to help them last through the winter and the lean times in the spring as the new crops were put in the ground. 

Smoking meats increased their longevity, though today freezing is also an important source of preserving all manner of foods.  It’s hard to imagine a modern homesteader without a chest freezer…or two or three.  Vacuum packaging and controlled dehydrators are other more recent inventions to help the independent food preserver stock up and seal in home-grown goodness.

On many historic homesteads, enough food was put by for a year or two, to help through a tough season of drought or flood, wind or hale.  In most modern cities, if the ability to ship foods suddenly ceased, the residents would be able to eat for three days—then the supplies would simply run out.  That’s it folks, three days of food.  Relying on a trucking system that uses fossil fuels is not food independence.  Joel Salatin offers an apt explanation of true food independence in his book Folks, This Ain’t Normal:

“Food security is not in the supermarket.  It’s not in the government.  It’s not at the emergency services division.  True food security is the historical normalcy of packing it in during the abundant times, building that in-house larder, and resting easy knowing that our little ones are not dependent on next week’s farmer’s market or the electronic cashier at the supermarket.”

Independence on the homestead also comes with diversity.  When the chickens nourish the garden with their manure, which nourishes the farmer with fresh produce, which nourishes the pigs with garden and kitchen scraps, which nourishes the ground for next year’s garden, it makes sense how diversity keeps the cycles of production and regeneration going all on the same plot of land. 

With diversification also comes the safety net that if one aspect goes awry this year, the other pieces in the farm’s orchestration can pick up the slack.  The flea beetles might have eaten the arugula, but the potato crop was bumper—it all works out in the end.  I was once asked by a fellow farmer what I do for crop insurance.  My answer was, “diversification.”

Knowing how to make things yourself is also a pivotal part of a homesteader’s independence.  It might be as simple as inventing roll-down sides for your chicken tractor from pieces of blue tarp to help the birds better shelter from the rain, or as complex as welding your own milking parlor stanchions.  An understanding of carpentry, metalworking, and even textiles can help a homesteader with Yankee ingenuity.  Why buy a braided mesh to string on your trellis for snap peas when you’ve got a mountain of baling twine in the barn and can weave your own?  In the end, you’ll have greater pride in your own work than what you might purchase from a commercial industry.

Knowing how to fix things is the tandem virtue to making them.  On the farm, with our antique equipment, something is liable to break down at any given time—especially in the middle of haying.  A bit of wire, some baling twine, or duct tape and zip ties can help for a variety of problems, but other issues require a cultivated knowledge of machinery maintenance. 

My sister Kara is the grease monkey in the family, and she and Grandpa have spent many hours crawling beneath a tractor or a baler with a “humph” and a “could you hand me a—.”  We’re not experts—but you gotta do what you gotta do to keep the farm rolling.  Waiting for someone else to fix it in the field can be the difference between stacking the hay in the barn that night or losing it to a rain storm.

The independent homesteader also comes with at least a wee dose of stubbornness.  Tax the tea?  Heavens!  Tell me what to do?  I’m gonna figure it out my way!  So long as the stubbornness doesn’t run away with you, it’s a good tool for making you get up in the morning and pull every last weed in the garden, pound in the last fence posts even though your shoulders ache, and finish mucking the barn even when the sun sets and turns the sky a dusky gray.  A healthy dose of independent stubbornness keeps you going to get the job done—all the way, the best you can, every time.  It’s part of the farming bootstrap ethos, that extra nudge from inside for those days when you’re feeling low that you never give up. 

This Independence Day, take time to share stories of how your family has struggled for its own independence—whether through growing food, immigrating to start a new life, or rebuilding after the ashes of tragedy.  Keep that stubborn willingness to do your best, no matter what, and see the bright promise of this summer’s day.  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

 

 
 

The Wearing O' the Green

It might not be very green outside yet, but it’s the time of year for feeling green on the inside—Kelly Green or one of the million shades of emerald that remind us of Ireland.  With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, it’s that time of year when everyone can be a little bit Irish and celebrate the vibrant life of the underdog.

It’s hard being England’s second colony (Wales was the first) or a land attacked by blight and its people condemned to “The Starving Time.”  Those who decided to leave for foreign lands like America had a proportionately equal survival rate for making the sea voyage as they did facing the famine in Ireland.  In essence, the death rate equaled or rivaled the Bubonic Plague that had swept Europe (and Asia) 500 years earlier. 

The rotting blight condition that attacked the potato crops in the mid 19th Century was in part due to intense monocroping of these starchy tubers, which had been imported from Central America.  The Irish had little choice—few other foods could feed the large population on such small acreage.  Interestingly, the potato blight has appeared more recently in crops grown in New England, so choose your seed potato stock with care!

Despite all this devastation, the Irish Diaspora somehow managed to hold onto its up-beat music, spunky sense of wit, and love of storytelling.  Here’s a version of a traditional Irish story just for you, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

The Wee Man Under the Stone

Not that long ago, there was a farmer’s son who was working for a landed lord in the stables.  Every morning, he’d take the horses out to pasture, passing along a hedge row once in the morning, and again in the evening as he brought the horses back in for the night.  He was a freckle-faced lad, tall and lanky, but not the best placed for wits.  If he had been, he’d have left the wee man under the stone.

Well, one day the lad was bringing in the horses for the evening, passing along the hedgerow, when he heard a terrible crying—moaning, wailing, sniveling, and all the rest.  Surely, it was the most pathetic sound you can imagine.  But the lad looked around and could see no-one at all.

The next evening, it happened again, and this time the lad let the horses go along and began to search through the hedges looking for what might be crying so.  Was it a child, lost in the woods?  Was it a lady in deep despair?  Searching both high and near, he finally settled the doleful sound on a large, flat stone.  But it baffled the lad that such a stone should cry, so he headed home after the horses.

On the third night, the crying and wailing was simply more than he could bear.  This time, he found the strangely flat stone, wiggled his fingers around the edges, and lifted it up.  Beneath it was what looked like a baby—only its face was certainly no baby at all.  It was rumpled and wrinkled and withered up like an old potato, with a long nose, scraggly white hair, and two beady black eyes like those of a shrew staring up at him.  The lad quickly replaced the stone and stepped back in shock.

The whimpering started right back up.  “Oh please…” said the little squeaking voice, more ancient than the lad’s great grandmother.  “Please let me out from under this stone.”

“Why should I?” the lad retorted, more than a little bit scared of the sight he’d seen under that stone.

“Set me free, and I will grant you a great gift!”  There was a pause, followed by more sniveling.  The lad thought a moment, then asked, “Like what?!”

“Whatever your heart desires most and I will always be there in times of need for you.”  The squeaky voice prattled on, complimenting the lad for this and that, if only he would help this poor creature in need.

The lad thought about the little wee man under the stone, small like a baby but shriveled and old.  He’d heard warning tales of the little people and their tricks.  But then he thought about having whatever his heart desires most, and almost before he could help himself, he lifted off that great flat stone and let the wee man free.

The little creature leapt up, its beady black eyes shining, and danced a jig upon the grass.  “Name your wish young man!” it squealed in delight, kicking its heels.  “But remember this:  never EVER curse me, or you’ll rue the day.”  The lad felt a bit dizzy, watching the wee little man dancing about, scraggly hair flying.  Finally, he said, “What I really hate is work.  I wish I never had to work a day again!”

“Done!” said the wee little man, and off he flew faster than a rabbit.  The lad thought he’d probably never see the wee little man from under the stone again…but he was wrong.  Walking along, he found the horses grazing on a tuft of turf and headed them on back to the stable.  The next morning, he rose to brush the horses, but their coats were already slick, shiny, and newly combed.  He went to grease the saddle and tack, but all the work was finished for him already.  Even the stalls had been mucked clean and laid with fresh new straw.  Well, the lad thought this was mighty fine and enjoyed himself the rest of the day under the shade tree.  The next morning, everything was the same.  All of his chores had miraculously been done for him and there was no work for him to do.

Well, this didn’t please any of the other servants none.   They saw this freckle-faced lad loafing about all day while they had to work, so they put a bad word in their master’s ear and soon the lad found that he was without a job.  On down the road he went, wondering how such a misfortune could happen to him.  Now he really had no work to do, but he didn’t have any home or any food either.  “Curse that wee little man!” he cried out.  But, of course, that was the wrong thing to do.

From out of the bushes came the wee little man, the size of a baby but all wrinkled and rumpled with those beady black eyes and scraggly white hair.  It was grinning from big ear to big ear, cackling and jumping up and down.  “Didn’t I tell you never to curse my help!?” he wailed.  “Now sure’s you’ll be wishing you’d left me under the stone—tee hee!”  And he pranced round the lad, kicking up his heels.  And to his dying day, instead of all his work being done for him, the tall gangly youth had nothing but briars in his shoes, food gone missing in the pot, and all his day’s work undone by morning.

So, if you’re not in a traditional Irish spirit yet, here’s a recipe for quintessential comfort food from the Emerald Isle.  This dish is a particular favorite for children.

Colcannon

3 waxy-fleshed potatoes, cut into small dice.

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, chopped

A bunch of kale or half a Savoy cabbage, de-stemmed (or cored) and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and warm a baking dish large enough to hold all the ingredients.  Boil potatoes (takes approximately 10 minutes).  Once cooked, drain the potatoes and place them in a large mixing bowl.  Set aside.

Heat half the butter with the olive oil in a large frying pan.  Fry the onions for 5 minutes, stirring to “keep them from catching.”  Add the kale or cabbage and fry until it wilts.  Remove pan from heat and add the contents to the potatoes in the mixing bowl.  “Give them a good stir” and season with salt and pepper.  Take the baking dish out of the oven and melt the rest of the butter in it.  Place potato mixture into the pan and bake for approximately 20 minutes.  The top of the Colcannon should be golden brown when cooked.  Serve topped with butter or your favorite gravy.

A Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you!  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

 

 
 

Valentine Wishes

All in the merry month of May

When the green buds they were swellin’…

Well, we’re not quite there yet, but the days are lengthening and the birds sing their songs from the barren branches more lustily than before.  Slowly, the decorations of Christmastime come down—packed away for another year.  Even though winter still holds its icy grip on the land, we take a moment to warm our hearts with thoughts of Valentine’s Day.

Now, some folks can be rather cynical about this holiday, deeming bunches of red roses and flickering candlelight a frivolity of the Victorian era.  The farm animals certainly don’t notice—the breeding season is a faded memory, with the birthing season not yet arrived.  The snow piles high against the barn (or the barn door), and everyone seems pretty well ready for spring.  But groundhog shadow or not, we still find ourselves facing six more weeks of winter.  It’s not a wonder few are in the mood for a celebration.

But the old songs and stories cut through the dismal chill.

As I roved out one winter’s night

A-drinkin’ of sweet wine,

Conversing with that pretty little girl

Who stole this heart of mine.

 

Who will shoe your pretty little feet

Who will glove your hand?

And who will kiss your ruby red lips

And who will be your man?

 

And it’s just like the old ballads to respond:

Papa will shoe my pretty little feet

Mama will glove my hand,

You never will kiss my ruby red lips

‘Cause I don’t need no man…

Song snippets like these are a good place to chuckle at the nature of courtship—birds put on tremendous displays, other animals sing or preen or dance.  My Tom turkeys strut and puff most of the day, prancing about their ladies, who merely seem to sigh and say, “Ho-hum.” 

Humans might attempt gallant feats or graceful gestures, but in the end we are left to resort to the use of words—pitifully constraining things made up by somebody else.  In many cultures, a variety of words abound for affection, with different meanings for the bond between mother and child, a child and her toy, or a young man and a woman.  In English, we find ourselves with the word love, which is profoundly simple, complex, deep, and shallow all at once.

Do you love an apple

Do you love a pear,

Do you love a laddie with curly brown hair?

In researching the history of the celebration of love, I found only inconclusive evidence regarding the life of St. Valentine, who appears to have been an ancient Greek who was martyred for his beliefs.  It was not until the Late Middle Ages that renowned author Geoffrey Chaucer penned an association with the feast day of St. Valentine and the practices of courtly love.  The connection has stuck ever since.

The discovery of the tomato by Spanish explorers on the American continents brought new symbolism to the celebration.  Known originally as the “love apple,” its outline was gradually transformed by artistic interpretation into the heart shape we know so well today.  At the time, “love apples” were considered an aphrodisiac and therefore appropriate for Valentine’s Day symbolism, even though February is (quite admittedly) not tomato season in northern climes.

I’ll give to you a dress of red

All bound around with golden thread,

If you will marry me, me, me

If you will marry me…

Even if you’re not particularly fond of blind Cupid and his arrows, you can still find some enjoyment during the Valentine season.  For instance, it’s hard not to like chocolate (especially considering its anti-cancer properties), fine music, or the good company of those we hold dear.  At Farmstead Creamery & Café, we’re holding an authentic made-from-scratch Italian-style harvest dinner (completed with home-grown tomatoes!) on the evening of the 14th in honor of the occasion, accompanied by acoustic music performance.  There may still be some seats left by the time you read this, so feel free to call us for reservations (715-462-3453).

As Willie and Mary met by the seaside

A long farewell for to take

Said Mary to Willie, “If you go away

I’m afraid my poor heart it might break.”

 

“Oh don’t be afraid, dearest Mary,” he said

As he clasp his fond maid at his side

“In my absence don’t morn, for when I return

I will make ye sweet Mary my bride.”

In the end, Valentine’s Day is about making space for special moments with those we hold close to our hearts.  The roses and the chocolates and the lace-embroidered cards are all nice tokens, but offering our time and personal attention (true recognition) is the greatest gift we can give each other in honor of the season of love.  Warm Valentine wishes to you and yours, 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

 

 
 
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