North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Memories of Meg

I remember the first day I met Meg—black as the northern black bears, square of face and jowl, glistening.  Her year-old nut brown Labrador eyes looked right through me.  Her wagging tongue looked to be at least a mile long.

It had been a while since Grandma and Grandpa’s previous dog, Honey (with her curling golden locks) had passed, and we as yet had no pets in our house.  Meg was eager yet timid, still adjusting to her new home from a previous life with rambunctious small children who weren’t the right environment for a dog at the time.

I remember petting her short, waxy fur—best suited for dipping in and out of the lake or shedding snow like water off a duck’s back—leaving my hand sticky and a little brown.  How odd.  Now my hand smelled like dog and felt greasy.  I went to the sink to wash it off.

Grandpa laughed, “You’ll have to get use to that, I’m afraid.”  There were more than a few things to get used to with Meg.

Just as every person has her quirks, so do our beloved dogs.  This is true for talents as well.  For Meg, her crowning glory was her nose.  I’m certain that, with the proper training, she would have been an excellent bomb sniffer, drug detector, or survivor finder.  Taking Meg on a walk was an exercise in keeping your arm attached to your body.  Rabbit track?  Tug!!!  Signs of another dog?  Pull!!! 

Often, that nose got Meg into trouble.  No garbage can or sack of groceries was safe—anywhere!  Either lock it in another room or put it up high (really high) or you’d be picking it back up more than once.  Don’t even leave the pan of brownies near the front edge of the counter…at least not during Meg’s younger and more ambulatory years.

But when that nose of hers found the dead porcupine in the woods…well, that was not a happy day for Meg.  Quills in the nose, whimpering, you think she might have learned.  But no, that scent beckoned like Bali Hai, and the next morning she returned with more trophy quills and stench of decay.  So Grandpa went trundling out to try to find the carcass and move it farther away.  But the next day—voila, that nose had found the porcupine again!  So we buried the poor thing, may it rest in peace. 

And yet, for years, on Grandpa’s morning walks, she would still have to check that spot just in case.  You never know when something good and stinky might turn up, when you’re a dog.

Meg was really our first farm dog, and she took her job of monitoring the property seriously.  Announcing the arrival and departure of vehicles was one of her specialties, even phantom vehicles.  There was also the most important task of monitoring the wild animals too—deer, rabbits, and squirrels in particular.  She would sit for hours under the trees in the farmyard, holding the scolding red pine squirrels to their positions, dodging the occasional hurled pine cone.  Perhaps Meg in all her supreme blackness thought this was a siege, and surely someday she would win.

“Come down you rascals and fight like a dog!”

In true Labrador style, Meg also loved the water.  A little creek runs through the farm, which is a tributary to the nearby Hay Creek that eventually connects to the Chippewa Flowage.  By mid summer, unless there have been recent rain, there isn’t much to see but marshland.  But in springtime the water rushes and gushes under (and occasionally over) a culvert in the road.  Meg knew exactly where the banks of the lane sloped down by the culvert to the creek.

Summer can be incredibly hot for a black dog.  It just really isn’t fair.  And that water called and beckoned like a Greek Siren.  And a few hours later, here would come Meg, as slippery as a newly minted coin, dripping and shaking and smelling like lakebottom and weeds.  “No coming into the house!” was Grandma’s high command, “Until someone gives that dog a bath!”  What, more water?  As far as Meg was concerned, there was no problem with this sentence.

The first fences on our farm weren’t for the rabbits, or the deer.  They were for Meg.  Everything was worth a good grab, especially if it felt anything close to tug-of-war for her big, slobbery mouth.  Randomly ambling by one of the spreading maples in the lawn, without missing a step Meg would bite off a hunk of bark the size of a fist and chew it up, leaving the bits to trail out the sides of her mouth as she went.  Mmmm, doggie dental floss with a daily dose of insoluble fiber.

Ah, but the garden was too tempting.  Sweet corn was ever so fun to grab and rip from the earth.  Those were easy, especially when the soil was damp.  But tomato plants were even more fun because that was a real tussle!  But the humans caught on to this game and put up a fence around their horticultural labors, and that was the end of pulling out the garden for fun.  Bummer.  Well, long grass could do in a pinch, as well.

Meg, of course, was fond of attention.  Not in the style of being dressed up, no, that held sour memories of her life before our family.  But she loved being petted.  As far as Meg was concerned, you could forget the chores or the garden or anything else and pet her all day!  But the more you petted, the farther she would inch away from you.  First she’d lean a bit.  Then she’d shuffle her feet over or lay down.

“Meh-eh-eg,” Grandpa would scold.  “My arm doesn’t reach that far.”  Meg would look back at him longingly, then with an internal “oh yeah, that’s right,” skooch back closer for a while before slowly leaning and moving away again.  Maybe it was one of her many games with us on the farm.  Or maybe she thought that one of these days we’d grow stretchy arms, just to be able to pet her better.

Meg passed this morning on her big doggie pillow, still black and shiny, in a position of rest and peace at the age of 15.  We will miss her very much but we remember her fondly and with a few good laughs as our first farm dog.  This week, take some time to share your memories of favorite canines past.  They touch our lives and leave behind footprints on our hearts.  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

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Forever True Farm Dogs

You can sing praises to the barn cats that catch their weight in small vermin or that sit quivering in eager anticipation as the cow is being milked—hoping for a squirt of warm creaminess aimed their way.  You can compliment the watchful (if noisome) guinea fowl that patrol the edge of the barnyard, praying on ticks.  Or you can enjoy the simple pleasures of watching the pigs root up next year’s garden patch for you, weeding as they go.  But a farm is just not fully a farm without its ever-true farm dog.

There is a black-and-white photograph of our homestead’s original farm dog (or at least the one everybody remembers), back in the days when the Fullingtons were still carving the fields out of the forest.  King was a large, wooly beast of a dog that knew every inch of the territory and loved his people dearly.  That parka of a coat kept King warm even in the harshest of winters, when a week would go by with temperatures hovering around 50 below, when the wind blew driving ice from the north and the snow piled up higher than cars.  Even in weather like this, the cows still have to be milked and the horses fed and watered.

When we moved to the farm, admittedly our first dog was (and still is) not of the typical farm stock.  This is because we brought our little Bichon Frise named Sophie with us from our condominium in Madison, where dog sizes had been restricted.  But despite her diminutive size and white, curly coat, Sophie has been determined to live up to farm standards, even if this proves demanding at times.  She takes watching for visitors very seriously, falls nose-over-tail in love with the lambs each spring, and is always there to comfort anyone who is feeling under the weather or injured—including the five little orphaned piglets living in our walk-out basement right now.  Everyone needs love, and that is Sophie’s specialty.

Still, there are just some tasks that are too big for a Bichon, however ambitious.  As Kara’s flock of sheep continued to grow, it became apparent that having an extra set of hands—or paws—would be a great asset.  Farm dogs come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and types, so finding just the right match for our farm became an adventure all of its own.  Border Collies are, or course, the most common choice for moving and managing sheep, but these black-and-white workaholics flourish best out in the open range or in the show-ring.  For them, some of the day-to-day of farm life can grow boring, resulting in unappreciated behaviors as the dogs try to occupy their busy minds and bodies.

There are other kinds of shepherding dogs, however, including the Australian Shepherd, which is taller, stocking, woollier (perhaps King was an Ausie) and originally bred to work cattle.  But what caught Kara’s fancy the most was an even older and rarer breed known as the English Shepherd.  While these multi-purpose dogs were once the breed of choice on farms across America, their popularity died away as more specialized dogs became common.  English Shepherds herd well, control vermin, guard (at least to some degree) and have an uncanny knowledge of where each group of livestock should be at any given time.  There are stories of English Shepherds discovering that their flock or herd has found a break in the fence-line.  After herding all the animals back through the hole, the dog will sit there, maintaining order, until the farmer comes to fix the fence.  Keeping the routine and everything orderly is their mission.

Today, most English Shepherds find occupations on cattle farms.  Breeders are very protective of their puppies and make certain that they are placed on working farms, where they will be able to apply themselves in the environment they were meant to inhabit, instead of cooped up in apartments.  Kara had to complete a rigorous paperwork and interview process in order to bring home our little English Shepherd, picked especially for us because of her petite size and soft mouth—traits deemed better for managing sheep than cattle.  In fact, she was so much smaller than her boisterous littermates that the breeder’s daughter named her Thumbelina.

Now, when you’re trying to snag the attention of our working farm dog across the expanse of the pasture, hollering “Thumbelina!” is not the most efficient.  That and shortening the name to Thumba projects poorly and sounds a bit like “come,” so we opted for calling her Lena.  A tri-color (black, white, and brown), Lena is sleek, fast, and eager to please.  As she matured, Lena delighted in learning her duties alongside us, which she deemed to also include picking raspberries and digging potatoes (claws and teeth work just find when you aren’t equipped with hands), as well as following the sheep back to the barn and hunting voles in the garden.

Lena’s propensity for maintaining order and organization on the farm manifests in frantic barking when a pig gets loose (those pigs still do not know how to be herded, despite valiant canine efforts), bumping the meat chickens with her nose when they fail to walk briskly as we move the chicken tractors, and a particular incident last autumn with turkeys.  Now, to Lena, it seems that a turkey is a turkey is a turkey.  We were relaxing in our living room, which overlooks the garden and parts of the barnyard.  At that time of year, my heritage turkeys live in a coop to the west, where they have their own run (yard) to stretch their legs and catch bugs amongst the grass.  But with the series of mild winters the area has been experiencing, wild turkeys have become more common to sight pecking along roadways and trundling through the edge of the woods.  On this day, a group of about five were trotting down our lane.

At the sight of movement, Lena perked up, began quivering, then commenced barking and jumping up and down.

“Lena!” I chided.  “Those are wild turkeys.  They’re not hurting anybody.”

But that didn’t matter.  Turkeys are turkeys are turkeys, and they go in the coop to the west, not out by the garden!  Lena barked some more, franticly pacing from window to glass door.  Wild or not, turkeys needed to go IN THE COOP, and this crew was headed the WRONG WAY!  Oh my goodness, was it a commotion…until finally those silly turkeys disappeared amidst the trees to the east.

That evening, during chores, Lena still had to check the spot where she had seen them and check the Jersey Buffs back at the coop to make certain that everyone was still in their proper place.  It did not matter that the domestic turkeys were cinnamon colored, while the wild ones were almost black—turkeys had to stay where turkeys were supposed to be!

Yet above all the animals in her care, Lena loves her people.  Once we opened Farmstead Creamery & Café, Lena accepted this space as her territory as well.  While she cannot come inside, Lena is happy to relax by the porch, watching our celebrity chickens Wooster and Clementine and enjoying the curious children (and adults) who come to pet her.  She also takes it as her special duty to announce the arrival of each morning’s first clients and keep track of all the comings and goings.

From companion to watch dog, from herder to greeter, Lena is part of a lineage of forever true farm dogs that shows just how special the human-animal working relationship can be.  Maybe you’ve already met Lena or have your own special memories of farm dogs past and present, but she’ll probably announce your arrival or give you a tail-swirling escort if we see you down at 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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