North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

 

 
 

Seed Catalogue Scribbles

“Need a trellising cucumber that doesn’t get a waist in the middle and peas that harvest all at once,” is on our wish-list this year as we thumb through the colorful seed catalogues that start to fill the mailbox as early as December.

December?  Who is even ready to think about seeds yet!  But now that late February brings noticeably lengthened daylight, birds flit actively and sing, and the snow clumps tumble off the edge of the roof and land in wet plops below, it’s hard not to think of the oncoming spring. 

Now, granted, spring also brings with it a multitude of baby animals, a million projects needing attention all at once, plenty of mud and barn mucking…but the thought of eager little plants in the basement, popping their optimistic first leaves through the starting soil is as close to a visual of hope as any I can imagine at this moment.  Nature is reborn through a promise of summer glory and a delicious and bountiful harvest.

“Check out the heirloom tomatoes; any new cherry types?  Low acid strains are preferable.”

By the time February comes, even the store of home-canned tomatoes is dwindling.  The hard, pink rocks in the story are hardly worth the mention, and so we dream of the succulent, dripping red orbs that seem so tantalizingly far away.  The seed catalogue images of tomatoes seem especially glossy and succulent—almost unreal in this land of white and gray and barren branches.  Will summer really be as green as the photos I took last July?  Each winter I wonder, as if I am not yet ready to trust the truth of the images.

There is something irreplaceable about a homegrown tomato.  It might be lumpy, with a little sun scorch on the top or a little scab on the bottom, but inside is a treasure of juicy flavor ready to burst forth.  Oh, for some heirloom tomato bruschetta… 

But tomatoes come with their own trials.  They have to be started very early and transplanted many times.  They need compost tea, lots of sun, and a long hardening-off process.  Sometimes we spend months in the spring hauling teenaged tomato plants out to the high tunnel during the day and back into the house in the evening because we just can’t quite trust that it will stay warm enough out there.  The house can become so full of plants just before early summer’s transplanting that every surface (floor and table) throughout most of the house is turned into a virtual greenhouse of little cucumbers, squashes, and eggplants.  One farm visitor managed to find a vacant chair and looked around a bit bewildered, laughing, “Guess I’m sitting in the garden.” 

Invariably, it’s safe to transplant the tomatoes once they absolutely cannot wait any longer in their pots, and we’re out at 11:00 in the evening, desperate to save them, with headlamps and hand trowels and watering cans and…  To see a performance of a song by Stephanie Davis that is a perfect example of how the love of tomatoes can take over your life, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-JCpoyNpJQ (or search “Veggie Serenade”).

“Peppers that turn colors (red, yellow, orange) without rotting in the field.”

Perhaps it’s our soil or our luck, but we have had a dickens of a time getting peppers to mature beyond the green phase without them turning into a mass of gooey slime.  A small darkened patch grows limp on the side of the pepper and soon the whole fruit is lost.  Not fair!  Every year, we try a new variety, hoping for better success.  Green peppers are delicious, yes, but most of our restaurant clients really want red (or preferably orange!) ones, so the challenge is on.

We have had some success with small round ones, long skinny ones, or ones that end up with a curl at the tip, but getting that big, blocky fruit this far north is tricky.  Each year, we scour through the new offerings for hopes of a short-season colorful-ripening pepper with great flavor that looks promising.  But dark purple peppers?  We haven’t had a request for that yet…maybe leave that for an experiment another year.

“Stock up on onions—seeds, sets, or plants?”

Back in the days when we first started gardening, the bag of onion sets was an integral part of the stocking-up for planting season process.  That’s how Grandma put in her garden.  But an onion set is actually a year-old plant, and at this point in its life cycle what the onion really wants to accomplish is making a seed head.  For an onion whose focus is making a large, delicious bulb, starting from seed is best.

But trying to convince onions from seed to have a hearty start has been an adventure unto itself.  We tried started them inside.  We tried starting them in the high tunnel.  Sometimes they grew, sometimes they withered, and sometimes they just simply gave up and died.  Starting onions from seed is tricky!  Perhaps it works best in warmer climates, which is where the baby onion plants we buy now get their start.

Wrapped up in bundles of 60 or so, these little intrepid members of the lily family come by the boxful, ready to plant.  Our onions get a great start and someone else has the joy of getting those impertinent seeds to grow!  Get out your trusty dibble, get down on your knees, and in they go.  This works well for leeks too.

“Find an eggplant that isn’t so darn self-satisfied.”

I didn’t always like eggplants.  One of my strong food memories as a kid was the days Mom would make eggplant parmesan.  Now, I knew that Mom was a busy professional and couldn’t always take time to cook for us, so this was a special treat…or at least it was supposed to be.  It didn’t help that the eggplant had come from the store and had sat on the shelf for who knows how long.  Perhaps the eggplant had forgotten what sunshine looked like or rain or wind at that point…those moments might have been a long time ago.  This might be why the eggplant in the dish was far from even a vegetable-loving child’s idea of food—it was gray, slimy, and not very tasty.  The cheese and the tomatoes were, by far, the best part of the dish, and that slab of eggplant stayed on the plate the longest…staring me in the face.  I knew I had to eat it; Mom had worked so hard to make dinner, but…

Today, I like eggplant.  That is, the eggplant I grow.  But the plants that produce those lovely, round, pendulous, purple orbs of the Italian variety have a bit of an attitude.  To be honest, we’ve been lucky to get two per plant in a good season.  After that, they sit on their laurels and smirk at you.  That’s hardly enough for the eggplant to earn its keep!  So we went looking for something new.

There are strains now through the Asian varieties (which grow longer, slender eggplants) that are much more prolific and will produce right until they freeze.  Delicious sautéed or breaded, these eggplants come with purple, white, or speckled skins for a variety of gourmet tastes.  They’re not easy to stuff, but they do slice up into uniform disks, which work great for even cooking.  So, sometimes being brave and trying something new in the catalogue can be rewarding.  No more fear of eggplant parmesan!

“Try growing a new fresh herb—Lemon Basil?”

There’s nothing quite like exchanging the convenience of a bottle of dried herbs for the adventuresome and flavorful journey of learning to cook with fresh herbs right out of the garden.  Sometimes, in the summer months, I’ll just grab an assortment of vegetables (yellow zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, green beans) and throw them into a sauté pan with olive oil, garlic, and a handful of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, thyme).  It’s easy and delicious, especially when augmented with a little cheese or tortellini.

This year, as you page through the glossy seed catalogue, try something new.  It might be a bean that ends up growing higher than your trellis and waves around wondering what to do next, or it might be a new pepper with a unique shape and flavor from Hungary, but having a garden is always an adventure.  You just might surprise yourself with something you never knew you liked.  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

 

 
 

Chickens Got Cabin Fever!

This morning, the chicken watering vessels were torn apart and scattered across the floor, with extension cords barely attached.  The feeders were flipped over, feathers and dust lay everywhere, and on each little red face was a perfect expression of exasperation.  My chickens are in the grips of late winter Cabin Fever!

The turkeys with their long, scaly legs smash down the fresh snow each morning without a care, while the chickens glare at the rising snowdrift just outside their little door with their beady orange-rimmed eyes.  It’s just not fair.  Chickens weren’t made with long enough legs, and they’re not as immune to the cold as their knobby-necked neighbors.

The days are growing longer—but the progress is not fast enough for the chickens.  Each morning, they wait for me to open their door, hoping…hoping…hoping…  Nope, it’s still white out there.  Buggers.  These descendents of subtropical birds huff in disgust and fly up to their roots to grumble amongst themselves over their lot.

Meanwhile, I have those disassembled waterers to pick up, thaw under hot water, reassemble, and return filled with only a little grudging thanks as my reward.  Oh, well, the other reward might be a half frozen egg in the corner (if I’m lucky) or a clutch of warm ones beneath an armed and dangerous lady who puffs up three times her size as I draw near (if I dare). 

Being so cooped up with such fuss and feathers means the notorious dust produced by chickens has collected in the corners, on the cobwebs, and along fencing partitions in the coop until it dangles like Spanish Moss from the limbs of live oak trees.  So, to keep the ladies from thinking that they live in little more than a pig sty, today I brought out the shop-vac.

Yes, you know you’re on a farm run by women when they vacuum out the chicken coop!  Up on the ladder and armed with the black and red nozzled device, I was determined to conquer the dust, but the sudden varooooom sent the whole flock into convulsions of fear—pelting into corners or nesting boxes and staring with wide-eyed terror, their tails smashed flat against the back wall.  It’s a monster!  It’s going to pull off all my feathers!  The sky is falling!

But no, only the dust was falling, and after a while the ladies calmed their fears and watched my shop-vac antics with half amusement.  At least it was a bit of entertainment for the day, which was more than they had to occupy themselves with most wintery afternoons.  These days, even a chunk of suet gets boring.

Sometimes, as I approach the chicken coop in the morning, I can hear a tap-a-tap sound like an army of miniature hammers at the walls of the chicken coop.  Now in unison, now tapping askew of each other.  Are the chickens trying to escape—breaking down the walls of the Bastille?  I open the creaky door to find fluffy golden hens all in a row pecking heartily at the frost that has built up on the insides of the walls from the cold—frozen condensed chicken breath.  Only, to them, it seems more like chicken ice-cream.  Eventually, the peck indentations will circumference the coop, reaching as high as the feathery neck can stretch.

We have too many laying hens to house them all in one coop for the winter, so part of the crew holds over in our smaller hoop house, which stands close behind our home.  During the day, the solar energy keeps them warm as they luxuriate in their sauna dust baths—leaving the floor a virtual moonscape of miniature craters filled with lazy-eyed featherballs.  But the greenhouse has trouble staying warm at night, so I run a few heat lamps to give the ladies a break from the chill.

Dusk falls, and the high tunnel glows a soft golden-orange.  But wait, it’s now the chicken shadow show!  Our cat Pumpkin perches by the window, watching gargantuan black chicken shadows strut across the screen like an exotic paper puppet show.  Do the chickens know they are on parade?  Do the chickens notice their own shadows as well? 

And then the Silver-laced Wyandotte rooster starts crowing at 2:00 in the morning, and we wonder why we thought it was such a grand idea to keep the chickens so close to the house…

Admittedly, it was in part to help ease the burden of chores during the dark phase of the year.  While there are not as many chores to accomplish during the winter months as there is in the summertime, what chores are still necessary are often made harder by winter’s temperament.  The ground heaves and doors no longer want to shut or stay shut.  Water faucets freeze.  Paths must be either trounces or shoveled across the barnyard.  Door knobs and locks are coated with ice and won’t turn or unlock.  And a sudden thaw sends a chicken coop from being a nice, frozen pack of bedding to a veritable swamp in need of immediate cleaning.

But the ice is the worst.  I recall one day of slipping and sliding about with feed and water, chipping away ice from door sills and thawing out of the unplugged turkey waterer.  My hands were freezing, and my feet were numb.  The chickens huddled on their roosts as puffy balls of fluff without any toes to be seen.  Finally, I had my ice-cream bucket full of eggs, and I was heading back to the house!  Enough of this cold, I was ready to curl up by the wood stove and thaw myself out!  As I went teetering along the path down the gentle slope to our house, the ice had the last laugh. 

Falling can be something you don’t notice until it’s too late.  I remember looking up as my arms flew skyward, and there was the bucket going up…and up…and up…  The eggs were spreading outward like a multi-colored firework display in slow motions.  And then I hit the ice with a great bump on my rump and tried desperately to cover myself as the sounds of percussive splat-splat-splat pelted down all around me.

The poor ladies.  They would have surely read me the poultry riot act if they had known the fate of their day’s labors.  We took out our scoop shovels and cleaned up as much of the runny yellow mess as we could, much to the delight of the pigs (and the dogs, who cleaned up the rest quite happily).  It was a sore moment, in more ways than one.

But there was no falling on the ice today as I wrapped up the cord on the shop-vac and climbed down from the ladder.  A black-and-white rooster pranced for a hen, with one wing fanned and tail plumed.  A lady from her nest crooned softly and re-arranged the pile of eggs beneath her, while a second looked impatient for her turn to have a nesting spot.  Still, despite the return of normal chicken routine, I could sense the chicken cabin fever lurking beneath the surface.  I can only imagine that at night they dream of grass and slugs and the deliciousness of summer…for a chicken.

I just hope that they haven’t knocked over all their waterers again by morning.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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

 
 

On Being Neighborly

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

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

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

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

Grab your fiddle and grab your bow

Circle round and Do-si-do

First to the right and then to the left

Then to the one that you love best.

 

Get outa the way for old Dan Tucker

He’s too late to get his supper

Supper’s over and dinner is a cookin’

Old Dan Tucker just a-stands there lookin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

The Truth about Food Miles

A farmer asks a small child, “Where does milk come from?”  The child responds, honestly enough, “From the store.”

It’s hard to blame the child, who has probably never stepped foot into a dairy barn or seen the milk from an ample udder stream into the pail all frothy and warm.  But the question of where food comes from is still just as relevant to the learning of that child as it is for each of us today.  That educational process can be both enlightening and disturbing.

In the child’s perception, the movement of milk is from the grocery store to Mom’s refrigerator.  But before it reached the grocery store, it spend time with a distributor, which received the product from the processing facility, which pasteurized, homogenized, and bottled the milk that was shipped in from a variety of dairy farms.  All of this moving around of food from one place to another tallies up to what is called “food miles.”

On our farm, it could be called “food yards” because very little has to travel far from field to kitchen to plate, but this is an exceptional situation.  Tropical fruits, out-of-season vegetables, or farm-raised meats might be shipped in from Chile, New Zealand, or China.  Sometimes local growers find that their market is in a distant city rather than in their hometown.  At other times, companies find that fewer regulations make it more economical to fly American grown apples to South Africa to be waxed and then fly them back to be sold at American supermarkets.  Economics drives these decisions—cheaper labor, subsidized fossil fuels, and even subsidized agricultural practices swaying decisions. 

A study published through www.postcarbon.org cites statistics illustrating that 15% of US energy is spent on feeding Americans, which includes growing, shipping, displaying, and preparing.  Pair this with the fact that nearly 50% of all the food that is grown in this country is wasted, and the environmental impact is quite disconcerting.   Most of the wasted food comes from the methods of mass-production.  Not everything matured in the field at the same time, so part of the crop was lost during mechanized harvesting.  Not all the tomatoes or apples were the same size, so they did not crate up evenly and were discarded.  Produce rotted during shipment or in a warehouse.  Half of the lettuce had to be thrown away by the restaurant because it was too old or unfit to serve.  I know because I have received those frantic calls from chefs when the box of green beans from their commercial purveyor arrives white and fuzzy.

Processed foods or foods with a high fat or high sugar content are the greatest offenders in the food mile problem.  A recent study in Sweden quoted on www.thedailygreen.org traced the components of a traditional Swedish breakfast—apple, bread, butter, cheese, coffee, cream, orange juice, and sugar.  When combining all the miles traveled by each breakfast component, it was startling for the researchers to discover that this breakfast had trekked 24,901 miles, approximately the circumference of the earth!

In America, the traditional quote for food miles (be it for a steak, a tomato, or a cake) is 1,500 miles.  This is in accordance with a study conducted in Chicago.  More recently, the study was similarly repeated and found that the number had jumped to 2,500 miles.  This figure is for an individual product, not even a whole meal!  The trip from the grocery store to your home is but one small piece of your food’s story.  Find yourself a local farmer and cut out most of those miles—the farmer and the environment will thank you!

So, in light of these alarming statistics, I tried my own food mile experiment, focusing on local.  Try it and see what you discover!  Be empowered to know where your food comes from.  In the meantime, you’ll enjoy this delicious recipe.

French Bistro Frisee Salad

1 head frisee endive (from our aquaponics greenhouse, 1/100th of a mile)

2 Tbs. olive oil (4,300 miles from Italy to New York distributor, then another 1,430 miles)

2 tsp. red wine vinegar (Same Italy number as above, plus 1,400 miles from New Jersey plant)

1 shallot (from our garden, 1/10th of a mile)

½ to 1 tsp. Dijon mustard (at least 2,330 miles from California distributer, miles for individual sub ingredients unknown)

Salt and Pepper (620 miles from the packing company)

2 slices bacon (from our pigs, to the butcher and back, 75 miles)

2 to 4 farm fresh eggs, one per person (from our chickens, 1/10th of a mile)

Tear or cut endive into bite-sized pieces.  In a small bowl, mix oil, vinegar, shallot, and mustard.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Set dressing aside.  Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until brown and crispy (about 5 minutes).  Set aside on paper towel to cool.

Simmer a medium-sized pot or deep skillet of water to poach the eggs.  A tiny scoash of vinegar helps hold the egg together.  Crack eggs into simmering water (don’t let it get to a rolling boil) and poach until desired doneness.  Meanwhile, toss endive in dressing until evenly coated.  Plate up endive, crumble bacon over it, and top with poached eggs.  Serve immediately.

***

For the food mile calculation, the bulk of ingredients were sourced locally (frisee endive, shallot, bacon, and eggs), with a total of 75.21 miles, most of which went to the butcher for the pig.  Considering that this makes approximately 99% of the dish, this is an exciting achievement!  For this category, the average food mile for each item is 18.8.

Consider these same items purchased from the grocery store in town (20 miles away from my home, so that will add 80 miles to the figure).  The eggs could be from a caged egg factory in Nebraska (509 miles), the pigs from a confinement feeding operation in Iowa (340 miles), the endive from a mono-cropped farm in California (2,165 miles), and the shallots from a field in Ohio (863 miles).  That comes to a total of 3,957 miles for the meal or 989.25 miles per item.  That is one exhausted endive!  By choosing local, I saved 3,881.79 food miles.  The average tractor-trailer uses a gallon of fuel every 5 to 7 miles, so theoretically that would be the equivalent of 647 gallons of diesel.

The tricky part comes with the remaining 1% of the meal.  For the accent items (olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and Dijon mustard), my score was around 14,380 miles—a good portion of which went to Italian imports.  Understandably, it would take quite a few batches of this recipe to use a full bottle of red wine vinegar or a package of pepper, compared with a whole head of endive or a third of a carton of eggs.  While it is unlikely I’ll be growing my own olives on the farm, this meal is still significantly greener than the Swedish breakfast. 

Even though my food mile count is not perfect, I am choosing to make a difference by eating foods close to home.  As we all learn more about our environmental impact and make changes in our daily habits towards smaller carbon footprints, together we can begin meaningful change on a greater scale.  Vote with your fork.  Vote local.  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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