North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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A Night Out

“How come we don’t see you around town very much anymore?” is a not uncommon question.  “Don’t you girls get out and have fun?”

The honest answer is that, between the chores, the shop, the market, the garden, running a business, and all the other dimensions to what we do, it’s crash late at night and get back up early.  Something is always needing attention, and while one or two persons might be able to sneak away for a while (usually to run errands around town like a whirlwind), the chance for everyone to take a break and get off the farm is a very rare treat.

Rare, as in once a year…perhaps.

Most of our getaways are thwarted by farm happenings.  An invitation to a wedding reception has to be passed by because our first sow is farrowing, and our presence is needed for the birth of the piglets.  An evening waterskiing with neighbors is called off for much needed barn cleaning, chicken butchering, or CSA harvesting.  Just when you think you might have a moment, a storm blows in, and everyone’s out scrambling to bring in the animals and stuff loose items into sheds.

But at some point, you HAVE TO get away and have a little fun for your soul.  This last Sunday, Tom Draughon (who plays duet with me at the concerts at Farmstead Creamery) was performing as part of the Big Top Chautauqua show “Shanties and Shipwrecks.”  It was the debut performance, a non-pizza farm night, and the sheep had just transitioned to an 18-hour milking schedule.  If we timed everything right and there weren’t any disasters, maybe…just maybe…we could sneak off the farm for a night out.

This wasn’t a trip to see Willie Nelson or Trampled by Turtles.  This was local folks taking a trek to support other local folks making music and telling stories.  While on a much grander scale than our Locally Grown Summer Music Series, the Blue Canvass Orchestra shows at Big Top Chautauqua offer space for the creatives who call this area home to entertain, inform, and inspire.

Sunday was a hectic day at the creamery, with many seats full, a gelato case scooping near to empty, and the menu finally switched to all breakfast because we ran out of the lunch options!  Everyone in our crew was dragging after the long week and the drizzly morning that pushed folks off the lakes and into the cozy shelter of Farmstead Creamery. 

But then, in a last-minute lull in the hustle and bustle, we loaded the seats into the little red PT Cruiser (customarily emptied for hauling farmer’s market), locked the little chickens and sheep safely inside, grabbed the cooler we’d packed with food for the two-hour trip, hung out the closed sign, and hit the road.

It almost felt somehow dangerous, driving away with Mom, Kara, myself, and the two interns.  Would the farm be alright without us?  But the skies were clear, though it was chilly, and everything seemed settled enough.  Brave Mom was quickly left to drive solo as we all fell asleep on the humming, swaying drive.  That’s what happens when homestead farmers stop moving, you instantly conk out!

The sun glowed golden on the top of the trees circling the shimmering Lake Superior.  Orange-vested volunteers waved us into our parking space, and we marched the short climb up past the ski lift on the hill to the blue and gray striped canvass theater.  Admittedly, it felt almost off-kilter to be at an event we weren’t hosting, enjoying life on the other side of the front counter.  We chuckled together in line at inside jokes, let the wind catch our hair, and genuinely savored being “off duty” for the evening.

The lights came up with the band in sea-voyaging regalia, bursting with songs of voyages and shipwrecks throughout the ages.  The big-screen behind the action shared historical photos, paintings, and even an early video of life on a sailing vessel.  After curtain, I had a chance to chat with the crew, help Tom load instruments away in his car, and shared a picnic in the darkened parking lot, where we were the only cars remaining.  While the herd of listeners made their way down the hill, we toasted our night out, Tom’s opening night of the show, and our intern Jake’s birthday all-in-one.

And then there was the long, dark drive home, the last stragglers of chores like locking in hens and rams, and we collapsed into bed.  Next day’s plan was butchering chickens, though the dawn came far too early.  But the scramble to get out the door, the long haul north and back, and yet another shortened night—they all were definitely worth it for a delightful night out, away from the farm.

We did get the butchering done, and the shop is back open, so if you’re looking for someplace tucked away for an enjoyable “night out” from your place, maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.  Our next concert night is August 9th, in tandem with the Art Crawl!

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Sudden Storms

The day even started hot, muggy, clingy.  A steady breeze helped keep the climbing heat from being entirely unbearable, but this was going to be one of those days where just keeping the animals alive and in the shade would be the major accomplishment of the day. 

We threw on sunhats and drug what felt like miles of electric fencing beneath the barnyard maples, red pines, and the spruces along the lane so that ducks, lambs, and ewes could have some shaded reprieve.  Less-than-pleased teenaged turkeys were marched into sheltered, shaded nooks by the chokecherry bushes, and we even spread a rug over the penthouse for the celebrity chickens at Farmstead Creamery to cast a bit more shadow.

And then we filled water buckets and filled waterers and filled kiddy pools, hosing off the pigs.  The heat and humidity was absolutely relentless, with heat indexes in the 100’s of degrees.  Finally, by 6:00 p.m., we had crested the wave of nature’s convection oven and celebrated by heading to the lake for a swim and a picnic supper.

Yet despite these relaxing moments, part of us still knew that such heat and energy meant that storms would be coming.  Just rain, we hoped, no drama…but that wasn’t likely.  The evening was still muggy and close, so it was impossible to batten down anything tight.  A cloud bank was encroaching on the sunset, which left us hoping that something would break the weather for a better northwoods day tomorrow.

It was about 2:00 in the morning when the first wave of rain hit.  Just rain, gentle, lapping at the south side of the house.  But behind the sprinkle, the sky was lit with strobe lights, flashes beating everywhere to the north and west—streaking in all directions.  I trundled down the dark stairs to grab our trusty IPod-touch for monitoring the aquaponics and keeping tabs on the weather.  Who cares what the predictions and hourly guesses might be, I wanted to see the radar!

In a great arch, sweeping from Minnesota to Canada, a thick band of yellow, orange, and red was headed our way.  The warning issued included penny-sized hail and 60-mile-an-hour wind gusts.  After surviving the last major wind event the evening of the PBS filming, which had tried to run off with the chicken tractors and tore pieces out of trees, this didn’t sound like something we’d want to find ourselves caught in way out in the pasture.

It was dark, no moon, and still thick with heat and humidity.  We threw on pants and shoes and began the mad hatch-battening that precedes dangerous storms on the farm.  Snagging the trusty old farm truck, we pulled up to the wood shed and began throwing T-posts into the back, the infernally heavy fence post driver, and a wad of baling twine. 

Pat-Pat, the first few raindrops splatted against my glasses.  I dashed through the lamb pen to turn off the fence energizer while Mom rounded the corner from behind with the truck.  Out in the middle of the pasture, the strobe light lightning was flashing everywhere, blinking with blinding brightness our frenzied work. 

In the back of my mind, I could hear the NOA weather radio voice saying, “Remember, lightening can kill.  If you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.”

“I don’t like it out here!” was Mom’s version of the situation.  “Where is my string?”  I grabbed another T-post and began pounding it at an angle to one of the corners of the chicken tractors so they could be cross-tied and anchored.

The pre-storm gust hadn’t quite reached us yet as we lashed layers of baling twine from tractor to post, threw our gear into the back end of the pickup, and hurtled over the bumpy terrain back to the barnyard.  Kara was there, closing the sides on the lamb barn.  It was a mad dash to throw anything loose into a building, wedge the new people door on the farmhouse garage (with no latch yet) shut, roll down the sides of the high tunnel, and stuff any lightweight lawn furniture or precious garden art objects into safe nooks and crannies.

“Come on Speckles,” I chided while Mom was cranking down the sides of the aquaponics greenhouse.  Little miss chicken thought we’d camp outside in the penthouse that night, but that wasn’t going to be a good idea with the oncoming storm.  With little ceremony, I opened the hutch, grabbed the sleepy hen, and stuffed her into the sheltered room above.  And then we also grabbed the rug before it became a veritable sponge.

With the threat of hale, we tried our best to squeeze as many vehicles into shelters as the rain began to pour.  Others, we moved away from the trees, remembering the limb-throwing events of the last storm.  Again, the NOA weather radio voice reappeared, “Damaging wind and hail.  Take immediate shelter in a central room in the lowest level of your home.”  Yes, I know, but how many farmers actually get to do this?

As the downpour instantly soaked my hair and shirt just running from the garage to the house, I was feeling quite relieved to have started with tying down the chicken tractors first when we did.  Huddled together back at our house, damp and panting, hoping we had everything tied down or squirreled away, we watched the radar.  A deep red finger had dipped down into the Chequamegon National Forest, heading our way.  But in that finger was a small gap, like an exclamation point—a gap which neatly drifted right over the farm.

I did hear hail on the skylight, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds.  Torrential rains followed, and some winds.  This morning, the air feels refreshed and the dry soils moistened.  Hopefully, we won’t find any damages to the farm or livestock this morning, making our two-in-the-morning scramble worth the effort and risk. 

Sudden storms can pop up at any time on the farm.  We’ve seen them head straight north in the middle of butchering chicken, watched frightful soup-green banks pelt in from the west while making hay, fled deep-blue banks from the north, and survived tempests blown in from the east.  But whichever way they come, angry summer storms can wreak terrible damages on homestead farms.  This round, we responded in time…and got lucky.  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

 
 

Farm Tour Bloopers

You’ve seen bloopers at the end of videos or TV programs—those scrambled up or misspoken scenes that were edited out of the film.  Usually, the actors burst out laughing at themselves in the ensuing pandemonium.  But life, unlike film, doesn’t come with an edit button.  So when bloopers happen, they happen!

Some of the funniest blooper moments with folks on the farm have been in relation to farm tours.  Kids and adults who haven’t grown up on farms can offer the quirkiest questions or comments, leaving me with suppressed chuckles and a valiant attempt to come up with a good response. 

Farm tours are an educational experience, especially for those who haven’t spent time on homesteads or been near livestock, and questions of all sorts abound.  But there are a few gems worth a good chuckle for sharing after the event.  If you find your comment in these excerpts, remember we’re laughing together, not at you.  I’m sure I had my share of awkward farm questions when I was starting up too!

This last week, in connection with Independence Day, floods of folks were coming to Farmstead Creamery, many of whom were interested in seeing the farm.  Over the weekend, it was nothing but, “We’re here to experience everything!  Milk the cows, ride the horses…”

I stood on the other side of the gelato case, frowned, and offered, “Well, that sounds wonderful, but we have a little problem.  We don’t have horses or cows on our farm.”  For many people, milking sheep is a foreign concept, so the assumption is that our farm will have cows.  In fact, the Wisconsin-cow connection is so strong that I’ve had people tell me that we’re not a “real” farm because of the lack of bovines!

“I think we should offer the kids a cow scavenger hunt,” our intern Jake suggested one afternoon.  “Here, kids, the one who finds the most cows gets a free soda!  That could keep them busy for a long time.”

There are also classic animal age mix-ups, like asking about “lamb’s milk.”  I patiently explain that lambs are sheep that are less than a year old, ewes being adult female sheep, and you can’t milk a mammal until it has given birth—hence sheep’s milk, not lamb’s milk.  This is usually met with, “I had no idea you could milk sheep…so with the goat’s milk…”  But I’ve already submitted a whole story on that confusion.

Poor Belle the donkey inevitably gets called a mule.  Maybe folks are only accustomed to seeing miniature donkeys and not the standard size.  She takes it well, probably because she’s so far out to pasture that she doesn’t catch on.  As I’m explaining about Belle’s important job as a guard animal for the sheep, terrified parents ask, “Really, there’s wolves and cougars up here?”  I shake my head in disbelief, wondering if the recreation industry is just really good at covering up anything that would steer parents away from the Northwoods, or whether these folks haven’t been paying attention to the news.

Some of the questions or comments, however, are just plain bizarre.  Earlier, when our intern Sam (who hails from Vermont) was trailing a large farm tour group, she was asked, “Why do they cut the beards off the turkeys?”  I was near the front of the group and missed the event, but she asked me later about it.  “I mean, Chocolate and Vanilla (our turkey Toms) are only two years old, and it takes a good four years for them to grow beards, but cut them off…really?  Is that a Wisconsin thing?”

Here’s another precious specimen.

Tour Guest:  “You said that your sheep are grass-fed, right?”

Me:  “Yes, that’s correct.”

Tour Guest:  “So, what do you feed them in the winter?”

Me:  “We make our own hay for winter feeding.”

Tour Guest:  “But then it’s not grass-fed anymore.”

I can’t help but wonder what this person is thinking, that we have covered football fields of pasture for them to graze in January?  That we buy sod from parts further south and lay it out for them?  Do they know what winters are like around here?!?  But instead, I pause, take a deep breath, and offer, “Well, hay is dried grass, so think of it as stocking up the pantry with good food for the winter or packing freeze-dried foods for an extended camping trip.”

At the start of each tour, I asked the little people in the groups to promise me one thing—that they won’t touch any of the fences because most of them are electric.  “And those fences bite and it hurts, so it’s better to know ahead of time not to touch them.”  Most of the time, the kids understand and the little ones hold mommy’s hand, ride on daddy’s shoulder, or want to hold my hands to be safe from the biting fences.  But last week, one precocious girl announced, “Oh, I already found that out!”

“Oh dear, what happened?” I asked, looking around.  We hadn’t even cleared the parking lot yet of Farmstead Creamery.  “Did you find the fence around the greenhouse?”

“Uh-huh, it felt like someone slapped my tummy really hard!” 

Whew, well, at least it was her tummy and not her head.  Sometimes those little people don’t look where they’re running.  The mother shook her head and laughed, “She always has to learn everything the hard way.”

“Why do you need so much fencing?  Can’t you just let the chickens run?” is another question that pops up from time to time.  While I’ve tried several approaches to answering the need-for-fencing question, the most effective so far has been to list this areas predator load:  foxes, coyotes, skunks, coons, weasels, fishers, bobcats, owls, hawks, ravens, and so on, and so on.  Honestly, if we didn’t keep things fenced and lock everyone in at night, we wouldn’t have any livestock.  It happens quite often that, at the Creamery, I hear stories about how someone “used to have chickens, but then the (predator of choice) got it and….”

In the end, despite the bloopers, the odd questions, the wondering where the men or the cows or the horses are, the confusion about milking sheep, and all the rest, hopefully folks take away a meaningful experience of our farm.  But remember, life doesn’t come with an edit button, so I’m sure I’ll collect a few more bloopers yet this summer!  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

Farm Tour

It’s a beautiful Saturday evening, the dragonflies are out, a few puffy clouds float by, and the breeze carries the scent of clovers and wildflowers from the pasture.  Folks are gathering at Farmstead with family and friends for one of our outdoor wood-fired pizza farm night, children giggling and watching our celebrity chickens, parents and grandparents chatting and resting at the picnic tables, waiting for a sizzly hot, smoky pizza made with ingredients fresh off the farm.

But Saturday pizza nights hold a special promise as well—a farm tour!  The family groups keep me busy between taking orders, pouring drinks, and guiding the gentle walk down to the barnyard to visit the animals and learn about our practices.  For some of the older folks, it’s a trip down memory lane to the days of growing up on a farm, while for the younger folks, this might be their first up-close encounter with livestock outside of video games like Farmville.

So let’s take a walk together on the farm, and I’ll show you around.  Make sure you’ve got a good pair of shoes on, and you might want some bug spray.  Here we go.

Continuing out from the parking lot of Farmstead Creamery, we walk down the lane, past the little creek that flows under the road, between the fir trees on either side that keep the snowdrifts tamed in winter.

“The farm was originally homesteaded in 1915 by the Fullington family, which is why the name is still on the lane.  Back then, this was called the ‘cutover’ after the logging was completed, all that remained were massive white pine stumps.  To clear the land, the Fullingtons had to pull out those stumps with draft horses and dynamite.  There is about 100 acres of cleared land on the farm, so you can imagine how much effort that took.  E.P. Fullington (a Civil War veteran, originally from Vermont, who was in his 70’s) purchased the original parcel with his son Lloyd, who was in his 20’s. 

“By the late 1960’s, however, Lloyd’s children had all moved into town with jobs, and no one was interested in taking on the farm.  At the time, my grandparents were looking for property as a family retreat.  Friends of theirs had hunting land across the way, and they told the family about the property, saying ‘and their north field might be just long enough to land your Cessna 182.’”

Just then, our tour passes the trees along the lane to arrive at the edge of the field, rolling off to the north and west with waving wild flowers.  It’s been some time since an airplane landed in the field, which is now rimmed with pasture fencing that shelters contended sheep busily grazing.  Belle, the guard donkey, waves her sonar ears and watches the group in the barnyard with interest.  Here we discuss rotational grazing methods, meet the chickens in their portable tractor pens, and see the laying hens pecking busily in the pasture around their Conestoga wagon-styled coop-on-wheels.

“The crown jewel of any farm, of course, is the barn.  Ours was completed in 1919, and we had it restored in 2001.  When you look at the numbers, four years to finish a barn (1915-19) seems like a long time.  Well, there’s a story.  Sometimes Germans (like us too) can have a stubborn streak, and E.P. and Lloyd got into an argument about building the barn.  Lloyd stormed off to town and the family didn’t hear from him for a year—he’d enlisted in WWI.  When he returned, they settled the differences enough to finish the barn.” 

Often there are lots of questions about milking sheep and the process of putting the dairy together, which was completed in 2012, while the kids are ecstatic to pet the friendly goat and sheep.

We step inside to see the hand-hewn tamarack timbers, visit Linden and Sweet Pea our celebrity goat and sheep, and peak through the window into our dairy.  Our heritage turkey toms are gobbling, so we head that way to meet the flock of cinnamons and coppers.  Sometimes, when kids come, I’ll catch our tom Chocolate, so they can feel the warm, bumpy skin on his head.

“Wow, I’ve never actually been this close to a turkey before!” is a common response as Chocolate blinks and shakes his head, waddle flapping.  I make the kids promise to keep quiet and move slowly, and we have a chance to peak at the baby chicks or turkeys in the coop as they nestle beneath their heat lamps.

This year, because of the Porcine Epidemic Virus, we simply wave at our special heritage pigs.  They wag their curly tails at us from the tall grass of their pasture.  The ducks run and splash beside the garden, showing off their comic antics.  We pause a moment to study the raised-bed gardens, rhubarb patches, and berries that are part of our CSA program, farmer’s market presence, and store offerings.

“There so much happening on your farm.  How do you have time for it all?” folks ask as we make the loop back towards the Creamery.  “I had no idea all this was back here.”

One little girl grabs my hand to show me a treasured (but battered) chicken feather she found in the yard.  “What was your favorite part?” I ask her.

“Ohh, the baby animals…and Sweet Pea…and Linden.”

Of course, there are all the odd or crazy questions too (I’ll save some of those for another day), the complicated dialogue about the particulars of sustainable agriculture, or the long rambles about how someone used to do things on a farm long ago.  The folks taking tours come in all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and walks of life.  Some pre-schedule private tours, while others come for Pizza Night Saturdays for the “family night” tour opportunity.

While it is a lot of talking by the end of the day, it’s special to have the chance to share the little piece of Earth we’re caring for with folks.  Looking for a fun and education opportunity to share with your family?  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 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

Celebrity Farm

If you’re a fan of Public Television, maybe you’ve seen some of the eye-opening agribusiness documentaries like “Food Inc.” or “Supersize Me.”  Several of these include visits to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia, where cattle graze on pasture, chickens slowly parade across the pasture in their tractors, and hogs amply express “their pigness.”

For Wisconsin Public Television, there are also programs like “Wisconsin Foodie” and “Around the Farm Table,” sharing stories of food, farming, and fun in our state.  For the first season of “Around the Farm Table” with Inga Witscher, hostings of film screenings were being held in each county last November.  Kevin Schessow of UW Extension contacted me that the program was interested is having a few local farmers present at the event to speak about the local agriculture scene and what they do on their farm.

Held at the Senior Center at the top of Hayward’s Main Street, it was an eager and curious group.  In the film, Inga was gathering ingredients for a traditional meal to celebrate the purchase of her dairy farm by visiting area dairy and grain farms, as well as ice fishing with friends and demonstrating artisan bread technique.

It was exciting to get to meet Inga and Joe, her husband and producer, and talk about the story of our homestead farm.  Of course, sheep’s milk gelato came up in the conversation, as well as my being a musician—Joe being a guitarist and songwriter as well.  “We’ll keep you in mind for next season,” Joe promised.  “You guys have such a great story.”

But then, nothing happened.  No peep.  No inquiry.  And then, last month, I was busy serving late lunches at Farmstead Creamery when the phone rang (a not uncommon occurrence).

“Farmstead Creamery, this is Laura.”

“Hey Laura, this is Joe from ‘Around the Farm Table.’  We’re in Hayward right now, how do we find you?”

After a few wrong turns and several more cell phone check-ins, Joe and his father-in-law Rick arrived at the farm.  After learning more about our story, touring the farm, and discussing all the different aspects of what we do, they concluded that there would be enough material, easily, for ten episodes…though that wasn’t practical.

“What an absolutely beautiful farm.  You guys are doing such an amazing job.  Rick and I talked about you all the way back home that evening.”

We set a date for the film shoot in June, which was just concluded yesterday.  The sun was shining, the sky a silvery blue specked with dramatic clouds from the oncoming evening storm.  We were first joined by a wild edibles expert from parts further north who led foraging scenes in our woods with Inga.  For this episode’s story, Inga is camping with Joe and is searching for wild Wisconsin foods for making dinner that evening.  After foraging, she becomes lost, and then…

“And then that’s where the harp comes in,” Joe explained as we worked through the outline of the program.  “She’s crashing through the woods and she hears this harp music.  Crawling out, she finds you playing in the pasture with the sheep and discovers your farm in the middle of the woods.”

So, while Kara and Ann coaxed the ewes closer to the edge of the fence, my duet partner Tom Draughon (on lute) and myself in performance regalia parked by the edge of the field to play the opening verses to the Robert Burns’ piece “Ca’ the Yowes” (call the ewes).

From there, the footage launches into touring the farm, meeting the crew, and learning about gelato and the Creamery.  We were all over the farm that day, taking footage of the aquaponics, the dairy plant, and all the different animals.  There were also countless retakes of interviews in front of the barn and the Creamery, trying to get in every important key point. 

“You guys are so patient,” Joe offered.  “One more time, and then we’ve got it.  After this, then it will be 300 hours of editing.”  We take the scene again, then Rick asks for a different camera angle for shooting the Creamery.  “I want to get it just right because it looks like a piece of art.”

“What an amazing farm you have,” Inga glows as we sit down to a chef salad lunch for 11 folk, including sound and camera crew.  “We know folks who do the different pieces that you have on your farm, but not all of them together.  This is pretty special.”

After all the takes and retakes, footage and photo shooting, entrances and exits, we were feeling pretty exhausted with a gusty storm still on the way.  As the crew pulled away down our lane, we had to switch from celebrity farm to hatch battening as the buffeting winds tore branches from trees in our yard, tried to fly off with the chicken tractors, and shook the greenhouse like an autumn leaf.  Enough for one day, weather, how about letting us just relax and celebrate our TV debut?

Oh well, farming has a way of keeping you humble.

If you’d like to watch the episode of “Around the Farm Table” that features our farm, it should be released this fall.  You can also check out the program at www.aroundthefarmtable.com.  And maybe, on the silver screen, 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 www.northstarhomestead.com

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Everyday Aesthetics

Farms are certainly places of function—growing food to feed the family, the neighbors, and some to sell to help keep the place running—but often in family-run, small-scale farms, there is also attention to other details that are not just for form or convenience.  Flower gardens by the house do attract wild pollinators and provide habitat for hummingbirds and butterflies, but they are also pleasing to the senses of the people who live and visit the space.

Over the centuries, we can see the pride in craftsmanship that has been built into farms (especially barns) from a time when the pace of work moved slower and ethnic styles in architecture leant a noticeable flavor to homesteads.  While they meet the need (sheltering livestock, grain, and hay), they also command a presence and serve as the visual crown of the barnyard.  Many times, the barn went up on a farm (with the help of neighbors and family) before the house!

But attentions to detail, to form, and to visual appeal can be found all over the historically connected farm—from quilts to baskets to rugs to wagons.  One of the definitions of art is “to make special,” and these small but significant acts of making ordinary objects and work spaces unique and pleasing is part of the everyday aesthetics of homestead living.  As an artist of many mediums, those moments of everyday aesthetics—whether planting marigolds and sunflowers this morning in the flowerbeds or weaving a colorful rag rug—are sparks of joy and creativity amongst the often long and hard work of farming.

Just today, we were visited by the film crew from Wisconsin Public Television’s “Around the Farm Table” series to discuss a shooting in June.  We were strolling around the barnyard, meeting the sheep and turkeys, checking out the parlor, and laughing at humorous pigs.

“Wow,” one of the producers kept remarking.  “You have such a pretty farm, so clean and tidy.  You guys have really taken care of this place.”

Pride of place and the value of caring for a piece of our precious earth not only shows in the lack of junk piles and sagging buildings but also in the striking barn quilt, the cheery red-and-white poultry coops, and the border of tulips popping up through fresh bark mulch.  Even Laura Ingalls’ mother found meaning in “making things pretty” in the various homesteads the family owned across the country during the pioneer days.  Taking time to “make special” our environment is a way to show respect for the space as well as kindle that special beauty inside ourselves as well.

So often, farming is a matter of making order out of chaos, each and every day.  The strawberry bed was overwrought with weeds, so I spent days with a garden claw, ripping out the quack grass, dandelions, sorrel, and daisies—turning the damp, cool spring soil while being careful not to disturb the strawberry roots as much as possible.  I tamp in new plants in the bare patches, mulch lightly with bedding straw to help suppress weed seeds, and lay down chips in the walkways.  It’s tedious work, and I have to take breaks when my back wears out, but with only one bed left needing weeding attention, the seven-bed patch of June-bearing strawberries not only should be more productive this year, but it’s also a very pleasing view out the farmhouse picture window. 

Here’s another example.  This last winter wreaked havoc with the front stoop at Farmstead Creamery (as you may have noticed if you came to visit during those months…didn’t everyone have problems with something this year…).  With all the frost heaving, at one point the front door wasn’t even openable and folks had to make their way in through the kitchen door!  Despite the cold, Jon Sorensen of Venison Creek Construction (who built the creamery) came to jack-hammer out enough of the slab to accommodate the door.  It was a long and grueling process (not to mention dusty!), but he held in there for us.

All winter, we’ve been vacillating about what to do with the stoop.  Obviously, it couldn’t stay.  So this last week, Jon came with a saw and cut the beasts into pieces we could haul away.  The last vestige refused to break up, so Jon bent the rebar, hooked it to his truck, and drug it out!  There, take that you nasty concrete!!!  Away with thee!

With the new attempt at a stoop, Jon buried heat tapes and foam to help keep heaving at bay.  But instead of repouring a cement slab, we decided to try pavers.  Now, some folks might have just picked up whatever and thrown something together so visitors didn’t have to spend even more time entering through the back, but Jon also has a cultivated sense of everyday aesthetic.  Like building a barn or planning a flower garden, he worked with the limited materials at hand, in the space required, to create a stoop that not only serves the form and function needed to meet ADA standards and ease of access, but it also holds its own visual appeal in keeping with the aesthetic theme that makes Farmstead Creamery special.

Creating pieces of everyday aesthetic takes times, thought, and care.  Our new stoop certainly outshines the former, practical-only one (hole busted through or no), and we wonder why we didn’t think of this lovely idea in the first place.  It fits in so well with the visual theme of timbers and fieldstone that some of the people who’ve stopped since the installation haven’t noticed there was a change at all.

Now, I know that some folks won’t notice just because they don’t—they’re in a hurry or they’re distracted by something else.  Alternately, others may be inspired to think differently about their own stoop or patio space.  Either way, the little things do make a difference in the homestead environment to bring meaning and appreciation to the often dirty and thankless work of livestock and crop tending.  In our tech-infused society, where instant gratification and speed are the driving desires, it’s important to cultivate time and appreciation for an everyday aesthetic—to build a place that pleases the eye and soothes the mind.

This week, take time to cultivate your own space with simple but pleasing aesthetics, whether in the garden, the home, or beyond.  Maybe it’s time to bring order to the chaos of the garage or add an attractive bird bath to the front flower beds.  Whatever way works for you, springtime is a great space for “making special” in our everyday environments.  I’ll keep working on those strawberry beds.  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

 
 

Gym Time

Just this last weekend, area fitness leaders held a gathering event to help the public get motivated about taking care of their bodies and connecting with folks in the area who specialize in fitness training, supplements, personal care, and more.  Kelli (our first farm intern and continued supporter) and I were representing the farm with an interactive booth—promoting the idea that real health includes local, nutritious foods directly from their place of production.  With fresh greens from the aquaponics system, foods made with ancient grains, pantry goods from local fruits, and grassfed meats, eggs, and local cheeses, it was a great way for attendants to taste the flavor of the farm, learn more about what we do, and meet the people on the front lines of the local foods scene.

Held at the Middle School gymnasium, the chatter of eager voices hoping for spring mixed with the BOOM-BOOM of the bass drum from the CD player at the front of the room.  Instructors were giving demonstrations of Zumba, kickboxing, piloxing, and more, working up a sweat in their tight black-and-pink outfits.  Attendants of the event could join the open floor space at any time, punching the air, stretching, and moving in sync with the relentless rhythm.

“You know,” I turned to Kelli with an insuppressible grin.  “They should just come help with chores.  They’d get a workout and get something done at the same time.”

Kelli laughed as we watched red-faced competitors executing burpees at another stand.  She kept her voice low, though the room was so loud it hardly mattered.  “Yes, I challenge anyone here to work a summer at the farm, and see if they can make it without quitting!”

Oh yes, I thought, how about that third day of making hay in 90 degrees, stacking on the wagon and then into the barn.  How might that compare to a workout plan?  I wonder, instead of paying a fitness center to use their equipment for a couple hours a day, how about a farm chores fitness plan—what would that look like?  Let’s start with yesterday’s activities on our farm as an example.

March Monday Farm Workout Plan (Morning):

  • Fill and haul five-gallon water buckets from the indoor sink, up the hill to the pigs.  Pound the ice out of the pig water dishes, then refill.  Haul two 50-pound feed sacks across the yard and over the pig fence to fill the feeders. (agility with weights and lifting, balance)
  • Load another feed sack, plus five trays of fodder and a bucket of apples onto the sled and pull the load over to the barnyard, filling feeders and waterers for the poultry.  (resistance walking, weights)
  • Wrestle amidst pushy sheep to lay down feed troughs, scoop feed, toss hay, haul water buckets, and climb up the ladder to the haymow to throw down more bales of hay.  (remember that you’re waring 17 pounds of clothing too, so more agility with weights and lifting)
  • Perform 18 squats while hauling water to plants in the aquaponics, lifting and haling seed for fodder sprouting, bending and stretching for harvesting lettuce.  (stretch routine, muscle conditioning, balance, and some yoga)
  • Unpack the load of 100 bales of straw we picked up yesterday in the stock trailer and restack in the Red Barn (resistance training, weight lifting, and sustained heart rate)

I’m in the stock trailer, sinking the claw of my hay hook into the end of a bale crammed up against the trailer’s ceiling on the top of the stack.  Bracing my legs against the golden bales below, I’m pulling and tugging until the Velcro-tight friction between the packed bales gives way.  I drag the specimen to the end of the trailer, weasel my awkwardly gloved fingers under the two strands of twine, and give the bale a good heave out to the mounting pile in front of the barn. 

Kara then lugs the bales from my pile over to where Mom is stacking them on the pallets beside Belle the donkey’s pen.  Belle thinks this is pretty nice entertainment on a lazy, early-spring morning.  It might only be 16 degrees out, but we’ve shed our coats and hats, leaving our workpants and gloves as protection against chafing.

“So,” Mom can’t help but comment.  “I’m lifting 40 pounds of bale plus 17 pounds of clothing gear—that’s half my 106-pound bodyweight, easy.”  She gives a bale a heave up onto the stack, “And then I’m climbing stair steps with it.  And they’re bale-sized steps, not regular ones.”

“I don’t know,” I huff, throwing bales up to her for a while until the stack lessens and I’ll climb back into the trailer again.  “I think we’ll have to go to the gym later today.”  It’s our running joke on the farm after a tough chore or job.  Yup, no exercise around here…surely we need some time at a gym…haha.

“Yeah,” she laughs.  “I think I need to do some burpees.” 

Once the trailer is unloaded and driven up to the pig pen, we break for lunch before heading into the afternoon’s endeavors.

March Monday Farm Workout Plan (Afternoon):

  • Load hogs—haul fencing out of snowbanks, build catch pen, back trailer, and herd hogs inside. (remember, 9 hogs 300 pounds each).  Two neighbor friends came to help, so they got a workout too!
  • Tear catch pen apart and haul fencing away.  Feed and water hogs in the trailer and spread bedding.  Reattach trailer to truck, so it’s ready to go in the morning.  (aerobics, lifting, and teamwork)
  • Pack lettuce order for Northland College and the food co-op in Ashland.  Kara stays home to fill baking orders while Mom and I deliver the large boxes of lettuce, run a few errands, and return for chores. (stooping, lifting, brisk walking)
  • More squats and hauling water in the greenhouse, harvesting heavy fodder trays, and then back to filling pig water buckets and a general repeat of the morning chores for sheep and poultry.
  • Return to the house, at last, and collapse.

On our farm, because of the Farmstead Creamery schedule, Mondays are often filled with big farm projects, such as unloading straw and loading hogs.  But any other day consists of three hours of chores, at least, split between morning and evening.  Add in cleaning chicken coops, shoveling enough snow for three traditional driveways, and chopping ice, and it’s no wonder we find the thought of gym time rather humorous.  We’ve got our own right here, all the time, with no extra fees!

And rather than walking on a treadmill or lifting weights, we’ve actually gotten something done.  There’s clean straw stacked in the barn for lambing, the finished hogs are in the trailer for the morning’s run, the lettuce has been delivered to hungry northern eaters, and the animals are fed, watered, and happy.  And goodness, am I tired!  Guess that’s what’s supposed to happen at a real workout, even if it’s farmer style.  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

 

 
 

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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Makin' Hay

In farming, there are seldom any certainties, though a few things hold true—like baby animals in the springtime; frost in the fall; and a hot, dry, sunny stretch in early July that signals it’s time for making hay.  This is not a task just for fun or fancy.  Having enough grasses stored away for the winter is necessary for keeping our livestock fed during the snowy months.

Now, some folks have new, fancy equipment with GPS mapping in their air-conditioned tractor cab as they zip through the fields cutting and raking the heavy swards of grass.  Others churn away with the cage-like round balers that swing open to release the giant marshmallow of packed hay.  With these high-input systems, it takes one person to do what used to take a whole community.

Grandpa remembers the days when the threshing machine went from farm to farm, separating the grain from the chaff.  His job as a teenager was to guide the horses as sheaves were brought in from the field to the steaming monster of a contraption.  As the wagons filled with straw, he’d hup-hup the team to the barn, where the loose material was blown into the mow for safekeeping for winter animal bedding. 

“The worst job of all was the guys up there in the mow using pitch forks to even-out the load, with their collars turned up, their hats pulled low, and a kerchief tied around their mouth and nose,” Grandpa remembers.  “The blower pipe with the straw would shift back and forth, to distribute the material in the mow, and you’d see the guys hunch up their shoulders as the dusty stuff blew over them.  In Central Illinois, those days were hot, and everyone was covered in sweat.”

A few hearty souls can remember the ancient art of stacking loose hay in mounds outside—neatly arranged to shed both rain and snow.  A haystack was not only a building-less storage of hay, it could also be an important shelter for livestock or people during severe winter weather, as well as a play-space for children.

Our farm’s practices lie somewhere in the middle of these disparate traditions.  With a mix of equipment that came with the purchase of the farm in 1968 and bits and pieces acquired at auctions, we’re a put-put, square bale, no kicker, 1940’s to 50’s-era hay baling operation.  Grab your sunhat and a sturdy pair of gloves—it’s time to throw some bales up on the hay rack!

First, there is the chuga-chuga of our light green Owatonna haybine, as it whirs the sharp cutting teeth of the sickle bar back and forth, leaving a six-foot swath in the waving grasses.  Cutting the hay is a practice in patience and strategy because the machine cannot be maneuvered too tightly with its spinning power take-off shaft attached to the back end of the Allis D-15.  Usually, Grandpa takes several passes around the perimeter of the field, guided by Mom on the 4-wheeler watching for the dead furrow, fallen trees, or baby cranes.  Then the plot is shaved down the middle and broken into two sections, allowing for large figure-eight maneuvers instead of creating a tight circle in the middle.

The haybine rattles all day and sometimes into the encroaching darkness to get the job done.  This last week, in good old get-it-done German fashion, Mom refused to quit until the field was cut.  “No sense hauling it back out there for that one little patch!” she said determinedly.  So the last few swatches were cut by the headlights of the golf cart, as I warded off swarms of mosquitoes from the edge of the field.

“Really, can’t we call it quits!?”  But being miserable doesn’t get the hay in, and as they say, you have to make hay while the sun shines.  This was Wednesday, and rain was predicted on Saturday.  The hay would need Thursday to dry, followed by a mad rush of raking and baling on Friday before to dew settled in for the evening.

Some years, our “bigger” tractors are tied up cutting or baling, and we have to pull out the little Allis B to pull the gangly red rake (which dwarfs the antique tractor).  Known as a “side delivery,” the rake rolls the hay to the side, allowing several smaller rows of cutting to be glumped together, while turning the wet underside up to the sun for proper drying.  Too much moisture is the bane of baling hay.  Pack wet hay into a bale and the decomposition process will turn the grass dangerously hot—even to the point of spontaneously combusting and burning your barn to the ground!

Ok, so the hay is good and dry and ready to bale—it’s time to call in the troops!  Mom studiously aims the John Deere square baler over the wind row of raked hay.  Click-a, click-a, click-a, WHUMP.  Metal teeth pick up the hay and feed it into the auger.  Fang-like tines pull it into the chute, where the heavy plunger pounds it into place.  As the bale steadily grows, a counter measures the length, then Carunk!  Needles thrust upwards to the knotter, securing the compressed hay in two tight lengths of twine, and the bale is pushed up the exit chute towards the waiting hands on the hayrack.  Click-a, Click-a, Click-a, the next bale is begun.

That is, if everything is working properly.  Baling time is always fraught with mishaps, sheared pins, and breakdowns.  You know you’re in for an adventure when the baler comes with a tool box bolted to the top!  Optimists, aren’t they!  One year, I had to make a mad dash into town to buy a whole box of shear pins just to make it through that day’s baling before the rains came.  The hardware people simply chuckled knowingly.  “Ah, one of those kinds of days, isn’t it.”

There is also an art to stacking.  The sometimes slippery surface of the wagon deck rumbles and bounces beneath you as you lean precariously forward, reaching for the bale.  The first layer is fairly straightforward—five bales wide in a brick-like pattern that helps lock each row in place.  We do our best to keep the stack neat and square, so it stays on the wagon despite bumps and curves.  One year of riding on top of a pile of bales as they tumbled off the side of the hay wagon was more than enough adventure for me!

As the stacks get higher, they can work as an overgrown set of stairs for a while, until the front person simply has to throw the 40-pound bales up to the person waiting on top.  Towering five or six levels high, the wagon is unhitched and hauled to the barn then replaced by the next empty rack.  Then the bales need to be individually loaded onto the “elevator”—a rattly conveying system that drags the bales up into the mow.  Usually, Grandpa and I are loading the elevator, while Mom and Kara scramble high up in the baking loft, catching and stacking the bales in place as they tumble off the top of the elevator.  Covered in chaff and debris, we’re all ready for a cold drink and a much-needed shower.

There’s no way around it—haying is a hot and dusty job.  With enough rain, sun, and a bit of luck, we’ll be out making the highly nutritious second crop hay in September.  Have you ever made hay?  Maybe this week you’ll spy someone put-putting on their baler or come across a field dotted with round bales.  It’s that time of year, for sure.  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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Storm Stories

If you’re tucked back in the woods, sometimes it’s hard to see the weather coming.  If you’re on the lake, you might have a great view of impending clouds (especially if they’re coming your way across the water).  But many people who have visited the farm for longer periods of time realize that our fields offer a unique view of the building and changing of storm clouds.  This is a good thing, since having fair warning of hazardous weather can be quite critical for farming!

Why do farmers always begin by talking about the weather?  Too much wet and you can’t get into the fields to work.  Too much dry and the crops may fail.  Too cold and freak frosts can damage sensitive plants or prolonged bouts stunt tomatoes and peppers.  Too much hot and many plants bolt or animals suffer from heat exhaustion.  Hail and wind can wreak havoc, as well.  The list never ends!

This spring, the weather’s bipolar tendencies have made life quite interesting, to say the least.  Loads of snow, gusty winds, hot and dry, wildfires, soaking rain that lasts for days, chilly dampness, and steamy sunniness all in a month’s time can send farmers like us into a dizzy dance to keep-up.  Open the windows to the chicken coop, then close them again.  Cover the portable shelters for our poultry with tarps, then uncover them.  The sheep dash out to play, then dash in again.  Mild bouts of spotty rain aren’t too much of a concern, but when the weather turns foul, that’s when farmers get worried.

Every farm has storm stories.  Invariably, I’m out in the worst of the fray, trying to save plants and animals from harm, getting drenched and a little bit terrified.  Once everything is safe and secure and I finally make it back indoors…the rain lessens, the thunder ceases, and soon I’m back out opening up the hatches I’d just battened down.  When the clouds change their shapes in springtime to rise puffy as cauliflower heads—that’s when we keep our eyes out for the next storm.

The dark underbelly of the clouds has much to tell about their temperament.  Most times, they float in from a westerly direction, across the long North Field with the rain dragging behind them.  But this spring, nearly all the storms have trailed up from the south, popping over the green ridge of pine trees like a prowling lion in the Sahara grasses.  Often our eyes are glued to the online radar images, watching the progress and growth of storms.  We’ve learned over the years that getting a head start makes a difference for storm preparation.

I remember in the early years of farming for us—before we’d equipped ourselves with headlamps and generators—dashing out in the middle of the night in a storm to quick close down doors and windows in the barn or coop, scooting along the edge of the garage bent near double.  I didn’t want to be the tallest object in the barn yard!  Lightening flashes, and the black-and-white-lit image of the top half of a balsam tree lays like a corpse across the yard, broke clean off its trunk beside the wood shed.  The smell of wet raincoats, mud, and the feel of water between my toes in my sneakers mingles with the tingling in the air from the storm’s power.

Turkeys are especially prone to mishaps in storms.  They gawk at the clouds, facing upwards towards the rain drops.  Without proper precautions, turkeys can literally drown because the rain runs into their nostrils as they look skyward!  So often I find myself with a long stick, herding turkeys inside amidst pelting raindrops.  Last summer, the rushing gust of a storm’s front caught me just as I was in the turkey pen.  Looking up, I saw a great tree behind the barn rip in half—the top thrown as if a toy to the side.  I herded the turkeys even faster that time.

The old saying goes that if you place a horse, a cow, a pig, and a sheep on a hill, the sheep will always be the one struck by lightening.  This may have a connection with the buildup of static electricity in their wool coats, but no one knows for certain.  Either way, we are always careful to bring the sheep into the barn when a thunderstorm strikes.  But apparently you don’t always need clouds to have lightening!  One day while cleaning dishes at the kitchen sink in the farm house, I looked out the window into the field.  From the blue sky came a small bolt of lightening, right down to the middle of the field, followed by a poof of smoke.  I didn’t imagine it, honest!  I even found the scorched spot of turf later that day!

But our queen of storm stories comes from two summers ago while making hay.  Yes, yes, yes, you are supposed to make hay when the sun shines, and it had been shining!  There were no predictions of storms for a three-day stretch.  The grass was cut, raked, and dried—the exact time you don’t want it to rain on the hay because the moisture will ruin the crop.  That afternoon it was hot, muggy, and rough work for baling and stacking on the wagon under the July sun.

Then we looked up to the west to see a pea-soup-green wall coming our way—fast.  The leading edge curled upwards like a massive dog tongue, any sunshine behind it completely obliterated.  We revved the tractor and tried desperately to crank out as many bales of hay as we could before the beast struck.

Sarah, our intern at the time, and I frantically pulled a load into the Red Barn just as the leading winds hurled into the farm.  As fast as we could run, we pelted out into the field to tie down the chicken tractors, pounding T-posts into the hard earth with the vigor of 19th-Century railway workers.  The lightening flashed, and I imagined myself as the perfect lightening rod in the middle of the pasture as the hammering rains descended like a gray wall, blanketing the farm in water.  The wind howled, carrying with it tarps and buckets.

Sarah remembers thinking, “I’m going to blow away!” as she chased the last of the laying hens into their movable summer coops.  Then she looked at me clamoring after a tumbling tarp and thought, “No, you’re going to blow away!”  We hurried to close the walls on greenhouses, the windows on my studio yurt, and to save the turkeys.  Out in the field (about 10 bales from being finished), a mound of hay jammed in the baler, a pin sheared, and Kara left the rig in the field to pull in the last of the finished bales.  The rest would have to be sacrificed.

We drug ourselves into the house that evening, sweaty from the day’s labors and covered in hay chaff, drenched and windblown and a bit out of breath…only to discover that the power was out so there was no shower and likely no supper.  Oh the life of farming, it’s not for the faint of heart!

This week, take some time to remember your favorite (or at least most memorable!) storm stories with friends and family.  Stay safe, 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 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

You're Kidding

Well, actually right now we’re lambing, but there is a “new kid on the block” at our farm this spring.  And no, I’m not kidding—he’s a goat!

The story really begins with a sheep—Sweet Pea—who was one of a set of triplets born last spring.  While her brothers grew to average size, Sweet Pea stubbornly stayed petite.  This wasn’t because she had little to eat (our Mayterm interns delighted in bottle feeding her after Sweet Pea was rejected by her mother in favor of the boys) or any fault of her own; she just happened to have the genetics to be a “miniature” sheep.

Some breeds of sheep like Babydoll Southdowns are all miniatures.  Proportioned like a standard sheep, they stop growing at about 40 pounds (a size you can still pick up and carry across the barnyard…or at least Kara can).  Many of our mature ewes, on the other hand, top off at 180 pounds.

Sweet Pea is as healthy and perky as ever, but all her sheep friends were so much bigger and bossier than she, so Kara went looking for a suitable companion.  We milk our sheep (instead of cows or goats) to make gelato in the summertime, which can be confusing for some folks who are not intimately acquainted with farm animals.  Goats, sheep—what’s the difference?

In the summertime, we bring a few “celebrity” animals down to Farmstead Creamery & Café for folks to enjoy.  Last year, we featured Wooster the Silver-laced Wyandotte and Clementine the Buff Orpington (whose images are on a myriad of smart phones now).  Sweet Pea would make a wonderful celebrity sheep that could help keep the Café lawn mowed.  But sheep can’t live alone.  That’s how Kara decided to search for a miniature (dwarf) goat.

It was high winter and cold when the little week-old black-and-brown Nigerian Dwarf kid came home in the dog kennel.  Cold and worried, he was one of a litter of four, and his nanny was not going to be able to feed the whole brood.  Met by the sniffs of curious dog noses, the little fellow found a home in a stock tank in our heated basement—a safe and warm place to make a new start.  And he was a talkative fellow, nickering incessantly when he was lonely or hungry!  Even the cat Pumpkin found the newcomer most interesting, perching on a nearby box to have the best view.

With blotchy patches of black, brown, and light tan (called “moon spotting” in goat coloration lingo), his fur reminded us of the bark of the Linden Tree, for which he was named.  With little Linden as the first goat on our farm, we had a few things to learn—and he had quite a few things to explore.

“Let me out!” he would bleat, prancing at the edge of the stock tank.  Kara would pick up his now chunky little body and let him go on the tile floor.  Boing!  His legs shot out in all directions as if struck by electricity.  Linden would bounce off, slightly sideways, across the floor, dancing and prancing with excitement.  Lena the sheep dog would look bewildered, following behind while trying to stay out of the way.

Then Linden discovered the staircase!  Up, up, up, stop, turn around, then down, down, down again.  It made a wonderful game.  Sometimes the back end would get ahead of the front end or Linden would leap right over our little dog Sophie as she snoozed on the doggy pillow.  It was all so much fun, when you’re a goat!

Ah, but then he learned that there was a second staircase leading up to the loft.  Once out of the stock tank, off he’d go up the carpeted stairs, tear around the corner past my instruments, then up the more challenging wooden staircase—with me right after him.

“Linden, no, not up here!  Come back you little rascal!”  Linden had already lived up to his goatly distinctiveness—climbing on the fax machine, consuming a paper bag, and shredding a cardboard box.  He didn’t need to get into my art supplies!

Then after shearing, the temperatures plummeted.  Little Sweet Pea shivered, too small to stay warm.  So Kara thought it was a good time for the two miniatures to get to know each other.  She carried Sweet Pea into our house and plopped her into the stock tank full of loose hay to warm up.  Linden was ecstatic to have a friend.  But Sweet Pea had a different opinion.  She stamped her foot impertinently and lightly butted the little goat.

Linden cowered and bawled his head off, like the little kid that’s been picked on at the playground.  It wasn’t until some days later that Sweet Pea realized Linden was the only other ruminant in the whole house, so she might as well get used to him.  Now they make quite the comic pair as little Linden still has a bit of growing to do.  But Aunt Sweet Pea was good for him—teaching him to eat grain and hay “like big folks do.”

The weather continued to stay cold.  Prospective summer interns came to visit the farm, some even returning for repeat tours.  We trudged through the snow, visiting all the animals.  “I want to see Linden again!” Missy nearly bounced with eagerness.  “Wouldn’t they let me have a little goat in the dorm room?  He’d be nice and quiet.”

“Yeah, until you went to class, then he’d cry,” Sanora laughed.  “Then what.”

“Then I’d just say it was you in there making all the noise!  Besides, they have their goat in their house.”

We turned the corner down to the walkout basement.  “Not that this is the permanent location,” I smiled.  “It’s just until things warm up enough that the two can live in the barn together until summer.”

“Well, you weren’t kidding, the goat is in the house!” Andrew, a senior, chuckles as we walk inside.  I pick up pudgy little Linden and Missy is the first to want to hold him.  The little stinker doesn’t mind a bit, eagerly sucking on an offered finger.  Spoiled little thing—don’t have to worry much about him being well socialized!

Stowed away in our garage is a little shelter Kara has built for the pair, so they can greet visitors at Farmstead Creamery & Café this summer.  So if you’re wondering about the difference between a sheep and a goat, this quirky pair will be happy to illustrate with their unique character traits.  Watch out, though, that Linden doesn’t eat your hat.  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

 
 

Shear, Sheared, Shorn

It’s that time of year, with lambs just around the corner.  The great wooly beasts are corralled in the corner of the barn, waiting for the approaching rumble of Chris’ truck to signal the beginning of shearing season.  The enormous sacks for the wool are hauled from the blue truck’s back end and set up on a stand, the cables are hooked securely out of sheep reach, and the whir of the double-bladed shears begins.

I’ve witnessed a variety of shearings over the years.  One involved a llama, which had to be tied with the two front legs stretched one direction and the back two stretched another.  One fellow’s sole responsibility was to hold to the head with a towel (apparently to retain the notorious llama spit).  But sheep have the unique characteristic of becoming amazingly docile when set back on their rump—at least most of the time.

There still is the occasional wriggler and squiggler and kicking of legs, but this doesn’t seem to faze Chris, who wields the shears with deftness only years of experience can bring.  First a long, blind cut right up the sheep’s neck with her head stretched back, and then the coat is gracefully pealed away to reveal a slightly pink and rather pregnant creature below.

The tradition of shearing sheep for their wool is probably older than recorded history.  Originally, this was accomplished using hand clippers with a curved handle that acts as a spring to bring the two teeth apart after each cut.  Some cultures continue to use this practice, which is valued by spinners for producing fibers without the dreaded “second cut”—e.g. short lengths of fibers created by the electric shears going back to clean up an area on the sheep.  The tedium of hand clipping a fleece maintains fibers of equal, long length, which are supposedly less likely to pill when made into garments.

Shearing sheep in the spring is also part of the animal’s health maintenance.  The wool grown all summer and autumn keeps them warm and dry through the winter.  But this same wool can become soiled during lambing and makes it difficult for the little lambs to find their mother’s udder when still wobbly and new to the world.  All clipped and pretty, the mothers are ready for proper care of their lambs and the warmth of the coming springtime.

Some ancient varieties of sheep would shed their coats (and there are a few heritage breeds that still do), which meant that harvesting the wool crop included copious amounts of walking to pick tufts from thorn and briar growing in the pastures.  Shearing meant that more of the crop stayed with the farmer (and less with the birds for nests)—a selection process not unlike the story behind early grains.  While wild grain seeds fall to the ground in autumn to replant, humans selected grains that held their seed heads tight because these were far easier to harvest methodically and therefore were the genetics planted in the spring.

There was a time when saving all that wool was vitally important.  During the Civil War, the Merino breed of sheep was favored for is extra layers of skin around the neck that folded and flopped over the brisket.  While it was not the most tidy-looking sheep, more skin meant more wool for soldiers’ uniforms.  And during medieval times, when the Bubonic Plague left Europe with a little more than half its previous population, the labor shortage was compensated by turning the land from grain production to pastures for sheep.  Not only did it require fewer farmers to tend a flock of sheep than fields of wheat or barley, but it was also a time when wool was king.

From long trailing gown to tapestries, most households spent more on fabrics yearly than any other commodity (including food!) in medieval times.  England had a bustling trade of exporting raw wool to Flanders (now present-day Belgium), where early mills turned the fibers into everything from sumptuous trappings for castle and hall to everyday cloth for those who worked.  It was a lord’s responsibility to give (as partial payment of services) a new set of clothes to each of his servants yearly.

Unfortunately, wool is not held in as nearly high esteem as it was in days past.  Synthetics, polar fleece, and other fibers entice us more than traditional and often itchy wool—even though wool can be saturated up to 30% with water and still be insulative.  It also seems a terrible paradox that farmers should receive pittance for their wool (some sheep raisers consider it a bother and an expense rather than a valued crop) and yet wool garments should be so expensive!  Someday, we’ll find a more creative way to use our fleece than to sell most of it to the shearer to pay for his services.  I even hear that in Australia, they have figured a way to make house insulation using wool that has a wonderful R-value.  It would also be a very green product!

In the meantime, our ewe Mascara is let back up onto her feet after having her beautiful 10-pound coat unceremoniously shorn from her back.  She staggers a moment, shakes herself, baas, and then runs back to her friends through the open gate.  Shearing is yet another sign on the farm that the year is turning towards spring.  Soon there will be frolicking lambs, baby chicks, little seedlings, and the world will break from the gray and white and once again be green.

Kara wraps her arms around Adelaide and Chris sets her down on her rump.  The shears buzz, and Mascara’s coat is hauled up the ladder and stuffed into the great burlap sack with the others.  It’s hard, rough work, and Chris is bent over near double most of the day.  Mom and Kara work quickly to catch sheep or lead sheep to the second pen, whisking freed coats to the side and out of the way.  Like many tasks in farming, it carries a rhythm and orchestration of movement and sound, with little need for talk.

In the end, two great bags filled with wool are stuffed into the back end of Chris’ blue truck, and everyone feels that sitting down is a marvelous idea.  The sheep, which look hilariously like goats at the moment, are happy the ordeal is over, and the humans are glad to come warm themselves by the wood stove.  The day-long affair is complete, marking a new phase in the shepherding season.  Spring is coming, the days are lengthening, the snow is dripping, and the sheep are shorn.  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

 

 
 

In the Face of Tragedy

If ducks were people, there would be 17 extra obituaries in the paper this week:  Miss Puddle Duck.  Loved water sports, green leafy vegetables, and rainy days.  She will be remembered for her joyous attitude and comic antics.  She is survived by her friends Henny Penny and Madame Turkey.

But ducks are not people, so the story of their tragic demise will be related here instead.

Farming isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always pretty.  Despite the best stewardship or intentions, sometimes unexpected disasters still happen.  A juvenile eagle intimidates the chickens by sitting on top of their tractor (movable pen) and frightens them so badly that the birds pile atop one another and several are smothered.

An innocent lamb pokes its head into a neighboring pen to sniff a cousin.  The protective ewe takes offence and butts the lamb’s head, smashing it against the hard boards.  The lamb convulses and dies of brain trauma.

Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg runs alongside a pickup truck with joy, slips, and gets caught under the tire.  She ends up losing her tail but survives the incident.

Freak accidents can happen on a farm.  They’re terrible, heart-wrenching moments, but they are also a space to learn.  For instance, we now keep solid panels between lambing pens, so that lambs are kept safe from neighboring protective mothers, and we always call our dogs to sit next to us when vehicles approach.  I hope that, someday, I can look back on this week and see it as another time for growth and learning.

The hardest part of farm calamities is that they come without warning.  On this day, it was calm and sunny, and morning chores had progressed without any particular hiccups.  I had even brought a bag of lettuce scraps from our aquaponics greenhouse for the ducks, which they had attacked with vigor.  It is a morning now fraught with what-ifs in my memories.

Wintertime is always a dilemma for poultry housing.  In the summer, there are a variety of mobile pasturing units to keep everyone happy and an assortment of electric fencing to keep everyone safe.  Even though we slim the population down to just our breeding groups, there still is never enough space to go around for the overwintering crew.  Turkeys take over our original chicken coop, hens reside in the brooder coop and a greenhouse, and then there are the ducks…

Let’s be honest; ducks are messy.  In the summertime, when they can be outside and splash in a kiddy pool to their heart’s content and bore muddy holes for slug traps, it’s not so bad.  But in wintertime, these same traits make it very difficult to take care of ducks.  You can’t shelter them in a facility with a cement floor.  They splash so much water taking daily baths (very important for duck health) that the ice builds up and causes trouble not only for the farmer but for the ducks as well.  So they have to live in a shelter with either a dirt or gravel floor so that excess water can drain away through the hay bedding.

For several winters, we have been housing our breeder White Pekin ducks in our red pole-barn, which has a gravel floor.  This is a multi-purpose structure that stores hay and equipment, as well as shelters our rams during the winter months.  By late summer, the south end of the “Red Barn” is full of square hay bales.  As we begin feeding out the bales to the sheep in the fall, enough space is cleared on the east end to make room for the ducks.  It does not take much to keep in a duck, and since this is a temporary space that is expanded as the hay retreats, we have been corralling them by lashing upright wooden pallets together.  The ducks quack raucously with excitement every morning as we lug five-gallon buckets of water to them, drag out their pool and break up last night’s ice, and throw them some fresh hay.  The white birds burrow their bills in the dried grasses, in search of anything especially tasty, and splash wildly in the fresh water.

But last Wednesday night, it was not so pleasant a scene.  We had been held up by a meeting at the Creamery, so evening chores were on a late start.  I was trudging along the shoveled path to the chicken coop, ice-cream pail for collecting eggs in hand, when I saw before me a grayish-white object.  The yard was only dimly lit by the barnyard light, and the lump in my path was the same color as the snow and shadows.  As I approached, cautiously, it stood up.  It was one of my ducks.

“You silly,” I reprimanded her.  “Didn’t you think I brought you enough water this morning?  Why did you escape from your pen?”  I set down the bucket of eggs, scooped up the duck, and headed off towards the Red Barn.  As I continued, I encountered another duck, crouching against a snowbank.  “What, two?” I thought.  “The pen must have come apart.  There could be ducks everywhere.”

Carrying two ducks, I crossed the darkened back yard to the Red Barn, turned on the light, and found that the duck pen had not fallen apart.  It also appeared to be empty…almost empty.  There were two ducks in one corner, but they weren’t moving.  I bent closer and found that one of them was missing its head and the other one was barely breathing, its neck gnawed almost through.

“Help!” I screamed to my mother and sister who were up by the pigs as I ran with the two live ducks I was carrying.  “Help!”  Something had gotten into the barn.  I deposited the two ducks into the chicken coop (the nearest safe structure) and pelted back through the snow, searching for more ducks.  “Here Ducky, Ducky!”  I found another wounded duck huddled beside the fence of the turkey yard by the time the other ladies arrived.

We faced the Red Barn together, first looking for survivors.  It was then that my sister Kara saw the offender—the short-tailed rump of a bobcat scooting out of the barn and into the night from whence it had come.  We worked like a search-and-rescue team, crawling into every corner, pulling out the dead and assessing the wounded.

13 dead on the scene

4 critically wounded

4 minor injuries, with psychological trauma

The only blessing is that we did find all the ducks.  I don’t think I could have slept that night (though I’m not sure I did anyway), wondering if someone was still huddled in a snowbank, shivering, hurt, and scared.  Most of the ducks had been drug beneath the hay baler into an amorphous pile, their necks bloodied and torn.  The bobcat had not eaten a one—simply killed them and stashed them away.  It must have been a terrible, mad frenzy of murder and fear—like Sandy Hook for animals, only the killer had not taken himself out as well.

We have since lost the four critically wounded ducks.  The remainders (despite warm baths in the farmhouse bathtub and aloe-vera juice in their water) are still in shock.  They hardly eat or drink and still will not quack, despite several days of sheltering in a corner of the chicken coop.

In a way, it is our fault—as most farm accidents are, ultimately.  We should have made a better effort to protect the ducks.  We had thought that having them inside a building where any predators would have to pass the rams would be too intimidating.  Apparently, we were wrong.  After being able to examine tracks in the snow with the help of morning daylight, we found that there were bobcat footprints everywhere—likely because it was hunting in the nearby rabbit warren.  The predator might have even pursued a rabbit into the Red Barn, lost it amidst the hay, and then discovered the irresistible clutch of sitting ducks.  The rest led to the sad story I have endeavored to relate.

I wept for my ducks that day, and the days after as they continued to die.  I still don’t know if I will be able to save any of them, but I will keep trying.  And I will remember this lesson and continue to do better for my animals.  Yes, we do butcher some of our ducks for food, but it is a calm, reverent process.  I do not wish terror and pain on any animal, even if I am going to eat it. 

I am also hoping that the future will be without such intense tragedies on the homestead.  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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