North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

 
 

Never and Idle Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

In Search of Light

We are seekers of light.  From the ancient days of setting bonfires atop hills in the darkness of winter to the contemporary fashion of LED Christmas lights turning humble homes into nocturnal gingerbread illuminations, the lure of light in dark times has never faded.  Specialists encourage synthetic daylight lamps on our desks to brighten mid-winter moods, while others simply move away during the winter in search of sun and warmth.

A winter exodus is often not an option for farmers, especially those who raise animals, so we must satisfy our need for light through other means.  There’s the good, old-fashioned book by the comforting glow of the wood stove as a place to start or the tradition of leaving all the holiday lighting up until the end of January to prolong the enjoyment.  There is something about the flickering embers of a fire that connects us with the ancestors or the colorful glint of illuminated home decorations that brings back magical memories for this time of year.

While humans are creatures of light by psychological preference, plants depend on light at a much more visceral level.  As the daylight slackened past the equinox, leafy crops in our aquaponic system (a specialized greenhouse where crops grow year-round, powered by nutrient rich water from our tilapia fish) began growing sluggishly, if at all.  It was something of an “I give up!” in the plant world, as most of their outdoor compatriots either succumbed to the cold or retreated to the root level with hopes for a new start in the spring.  In order for our indoor vegetable friends to have a chance, it was time to order grow lights.

We had hoped to be able to take advantage of new LED technology for grow lights, but this alternative was frightfully cost inhibitive compared with traditional models—it takes a massive pack of little lights to emit enough spectrum to stimulate plant growth.  The traditional models waste some energy as heat, but since we would only be using the lights in the wintertime, when the greenhouse required auxiliary heat if the sun was not shining, this could prove a bonus rather than a problem.  To best utilize this new resource, we added a timer and light-sensing system that would only turn on the grow lights when not enough sunlight was present to mimic day lengths similar to equinox levels.

Each light services an eight-by-eight foot region, so calculations showed that we would need 10 lights, which arrived through our trusty delivery driver who must often wonder what sort of odd bit of equipment we have ordered this time!  It was also tricky installing the lights because they had to be hung over the grow beds, which were already full of plants!  But tricky or not, the lights were up and running before Christmas.  The first time all 10 were turned on for inspection, the shine was surprisingly intense. 

“You could start a tanning spa in here,” Dave our electrician laughed.  “Might make more money than with lettuce.”

That first evening was filled with a misty fog, sending the warm, yellowish glow emanating from the greenhouse up into a dome of light above the trees.  Surely, the neighbors must be wondering what form of strange spacecraft has landed at that three-crazy-ladies’ farm.  What on earth are they up to now?

Jon, our contractor, was driving home that night.  As he made his way down Moose Lake Road, he noticed the glowing dome of yellowish light coming from the farm.  “I thought for sure the greenhouse was on fire!” he laughed with us after pulling up to the house to chat.  “I came around the corner in a great hurry and went, oh, well thank goodness.  Looks like Dave got the lights working.”

The plants were the happiest participants of all.  Within days, the Napa cabbages began to double in size, while the lettuces perked up their growth in response to the added day length.  As seekers of light, these leafy greens and fresh herbs rejoiced at the bounty of energy and have been filling our display cooler and many a salad plate since.

Other appreciators of supplemental light in wintertime are the chickens.  While in the summertime we raise chickens for the table as well as for the egg basket, the laying hens are the only chickens that overwinter on our farm.  This perky crew of Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, colored egg-laying Aruacanas, and feather-footed Light Brahmas transition from their summer quarters of mobile pasturing structures to the barnyard broodering coops or greenhouses.  Here, they are protected from the winds and nearby electricity can power heated water buckets.

But the hens, like the lettuce plants, stop producing during the winter months if left to nature’s allotment of sunlight.  Hens would spend more time sleeping and less time making your breakfast.  Chickens, like people, have a structure in their brain called the pineal body, which is stimulated by sunlight.  Take the sunlight away, and we naturally become sleepy.  In pioneer days, when lamp oil or candles were expensive, farmers woke with the sunrise and often retired to bed soon after sunset.

It does not require full spectrum sunlight—as needed by the plants—to fool the pineal body in humans or birds, however.  Simply adding more light can keep us and hens going long into the night…though not enough dark time and rest can leave both of us cranky and dissatisfied.  Adding supplemental light to chicken coops (in tandem with facing coop windows in a southerly bank to catch the most daylight) has long been known to aid winter laying.  Mix this with hearty heavy breed chickens, with plenty of bulk and thick feathering, as well as nutritional boosts like chopped liver, pork suet, kitchen scraps, or smashed pumpkins to replace those long-missed insects and green grass, and the ladies rebound from their autumn molt with vigor.

Tending the hens or the lettuce in the evening also gives me a boost of superficial sunshine, a glimpse of healthy, green growth, and a surrounding of contented, clucking hens.  We seekers of light find ways to make the most of winter, even with a bit of electrical foolery, to keep going through these long nights.  But as we embark into January, we know that the days are beginning to lengthen, if only by a minute or two each day.  Still, there is hope that spring will come again, with sunlight, warmth, and a new season of growth.  Savor those little moments, for each moment is all we ever have.  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

 

 
 

New Year's Resolution

Almost everyone takes a moment at this time of year to commit themselves to personal improvement in the coming 12-month.  Many of the more traditional commitments are well known—losing weight, exercising more, quitting smoking, or spending more time with loved ones.  And if any of these are your goals, by all means go for them!  They are part of a cultural heritage that reaches back to the ancient Babylonians, who annually renewed vows to their gods that they would return borrowed items to their neighbors and pay off debts in the New Year.  During the Great Depression, statistics relate that about 25% of American residents made a New Year’s resolution, in 2000 that number was approximately 40%.

Yet, as I look outside across the snow-encrusted barnyard, I cannot help but muse over how a quintessential agrarian New Year’s resolution might appear.  Winter is an apt time for imaginative play, so enjoy the detour.

An Agrarian’s New Year’s Resolution

Dear New Year:

I resolve to finish most (well, at least many) of those projects I’ve always been meaning to get back to.  It’s not that I’m lazy…it’s just that there are so many of them!  To make an entire list would rival Santa Clause’s wishes from children, so instead I’ll focus on a particular project.

I resolve to finish stringing up the hog fences for summer paddocks.  I know I didn’t get it all the way finished, but then the ground froze, and I couldn’t dig any more post holes.  Come to think of it, that’s not quite accurate.  I couldn’t dig any more post holes because the auger attachment for my tractor’s three-point hitch broke off its tip, so there was no digging any further at that point.  …Well, that’s not really the end of the story, either New Year, because I did try to dig a few more by hand, which bent the post-hole digger’s blades.  But at least we got by.

So maybe my resolution really is to fix the post-hole auger.  Only, it’s not mine…it’s the  neighbor’s.  So, yes, it really should get fixed, which probably means that I need to take it over to my other neighbor who has a machine shop and welding gear and…  But wait, his shop is currently full because they’re rebuilding the engine on my tractor, which broke down this fall.  So I don’t want to slow that down because it’s our only tractor with a scoop on the front, and…

This is getting a long ways away from the pig pen.  Maybe I need a different New Year’s resolution.

Ok, how about this.  I resolve to have fewer weeds in my garden this year.  Yes, I know, we got off to a very good start this last year, but by August things were getting a bit ahead of themselves and…well…there’s still patches I didn’t get ripped out before the ground froze solid.  So, I’m sorry New Year, I’m not planning to go out there with charcoal and thaw things out just to weed quite yet, so we’ll get back to that in the spring.  I’m sure the weeds will still be patiently waiting for me.

The only problem with that, New Year, is that I have the early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, which makes weeding and other forms of pulling, pinching, and ripping at times very painful.  So, what I really need is more folks around to help me get that job done instead of do more of it myself and consequently get myself checked into surgery sooner than I’d like.

So, New Year, maybe my resolution in this regard really is that I need to work harder at finding more interns to help us out on the farm this summer.  Eager, friendly, dedicated, and hard-working young folks who want to mentor in the methods and theory of sustainable agriculture.  New Year, if you know anyone like that, send them my way!

Ok, ok, ok, maybe I do need a better New Year’s resolution than that.  Maybe I need to look at the real root of the problem behind the last two ideas, a good, hard, honest look.

How about this—I really need to stop being so lazy.  Think of the time I’m wasting!  This getting up at 4:00 in the morning is silliness, what with milking and all.  If I got up at 3:00 instead, I’d have another whole hour to get things done!  Aha, that’s it, that’s my new resolution!

Sincerely,

Your Humble Steward

***

Maybe you’re hoping to clean out the garage, get a new roof on the shed, bring in more firewood for wintertime, or just learn how to say thank you more often—whatever your hopes for the coming year, I wish you all the best of success.  Take each day at a time, as a new gift, and find the good that lies in each opportunity.  Maybe fixing the post-hole auger is a moment to learn a few finer points to soldering and sharpening tools.  Maybe finding more folks to help out on the farm is a chance to engender learning opportunities that expand greater appreciation for the efforts behind growing and raising food.  And maybe getting up a little earlier to experience the summer sunrise will inspire our awe of the elegant beauty of nature.

As you ponder your New Year’s Resolution, light a candle in hope for the coming 12-month, make a wish for peace and contentment, and give thanks for the precious gifts we already share with one another.  A Happy New Year to you!  See you down on the farm sometime.

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

 

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A Fireside Christmas

There is no other time of year that is quite like Christmas.  The family gathers from across the country to sit around the farm table, the stockings are hung with care, and children’s hearts are filled with the wonder of the season.  Saint Nicholas is coming, and soon there will be cookies, hot cider, and roast turkey to share.  The old board games are brought out of the closet, and everyone laughs over differences in opinion on the rules governing card games that are dusted off for the gathering.  There’s firewood to split, winding trails to snowshoe, hills to sled, and fresh balsam wreaths to make—let alone the harvesting of the Christmas tree.

I can remember one Christmas, which was heavily snowed, trudging along the edge of the field, where our house now stands, in search of the perfect little Charlie Brown Christmas tree (it was our family’s principle to take a tree that was too crowded so its cousins could grow healthy and strong).  The snow was so deep—and I was so small—that it seemed we would hardly make it back to the farmhouse at all, wading bravely with the little handsaw gripped in my purple mitten.  It had grown quite dark, but Grandpa pointed up to the sky in the East.

“Look,” he urged.  “What is that?”  There was a large, round glow just coming over the barren tree limbs across the creek.

“Is it a house light or a town?” Kara and I ventured.  It glowed something like the barnyard light, only much bigger and brighter.

“No, it’s the moon,” Grandpa corrected.  And sure enough, as we brought the snow-encrusted pine tree home, the full moon rose up into the sky to light our way—sharing a bit of Christmas magic by casting every snowdrift into mounds of crystalline shimmers.  A Great Horned owl hooted some distance off, reminding us that nature was not completely asleep.

For me, Christmas memories are always wrapped up within the green and red package of the homestead and much of that revolves around the large, fieldstone fireplace.  In the early days, before my grandparents bought the farm from the original homesteaders, the only heat source came from a set of wood stoves that connected to a central, brick chimney that poked its snout out through the middle of the roof.  The largest stove had sat between the living room and dining room, and grates in the ceiling let a little heat up to the bedrooms on the floor above.  By the time the farm was sold, the wood stoves had been replaced by an oil-burning furnace.

But Mom remembers as a young girl wanting to have a fireplace.  She even gave Grandpa one of those popcorn popping pans with a long handle that is held over an open fire as a Christmas gift.  As the popcorn kernels heat up, you shake the contraption to keep them stirred and evenly heated until they stop popping and there is hot, yummy puff with a little smoky smell as an extra perk.  Surely, this would drop a hint!

And perhaps it did because soon construction was underway to build a fieldstone chimney on the south face of the living room.  Whole, heavy, authentic local stone (most of it likely hauled from the fields) were collected by two area Norwegian bachelors who had a special corner on the area market for fieldstone fireplaces.  And, after a few initial mishaps and a good bit of grunting, the farmhouse was transformed by the sound of the crackle and hiss of an open fire, with a ledge to sit upon in front and rock shelves for mantle space.

This is where my sister and I perched cradling mugs of frothy hot chocolate after a day of sledding or dangled our hand-knit stockings in hopes of an overnight gift visit.  We knew there would be oranges, puzzles to share with family, Grandma’s Dickens village to set up on the porch amidst carefully wrapped gifts, and lots of old family stories and remembrances.

Beside the fieldstone hearthside was an excellent place to set up card tables for a rousing game of Sorry!, Backgammon, Clue, or Pictionary.  But it was equally a peaceful place to snuggle up with one of the dogs and read a book or watch the snow drift lazily from the sky outside.  After three days of toasty fires, the stones above the hearth grew warm to the touch and resonated their own comforting, radiant heat.  The fireplace might dwarf the room but it certainly didn’t dwarf the layers of memories that were made by its side.

Our strongest memories come from smells, and Christmas is full of memorable fragrances, in part because it is equally full of good food!  It has been our family’s tradition to explore a different ethnic theme for Christmas Eve.  One time we had Mexican fare with corn husk-wrapped tamales, another featured a Mediterranean theme with lasagna Napoletana, and this year we plan for a Swedish twist with meatballs and Yulekaka.  In the mornings, there were farm-fresh eggs, Danish cringle sent by those who could not make it to the farm for the holiday, and succulent citrus.  The spicy tang of mulled cider, the heady richness of dipping chocolate, or the sharp invitation of almond extract are somehow inseparable with Christmastime on our farm.  Take some time this week to remember fond Christmas’s past or build new memories with loved ones over a bowl of cookie dough or your own over-the-fire popcorn popper.

As this year comes to a close, we think on its many gifts amidst the trials and learning points.  One of the best gifts of all is to give of one’s time to family, to friends, and to community—building fond memories by the hearthside.  Wishing for you and yours a blessed Christmas, with hopes for a healthy and satisfying New Year.  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

 

 
 

Cattle on the Homestead

In a way, it’s inevitable.  When someone learns that I live and work on a farm, the first question is, “So, how many cows do you have?”  Or, “You guys have horses?”  These domestic animals have been an integral part of family farms for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and for many it is hard to imagine a barn without cows or a pasture without horses.  Ours is a homestead with antique structures, run by small women in a situation and environment that is best suited for livestock the size of sheep, pigs, and poultry.  Back in the 1920’s, the farm did have a herd of Jersey cows, but judging by the distance between the historic stanchions and the gutter in the floor, those animals would have been about the size of a modern Dexter cow in comparison with the contemporary Jersey breed.

Yet the inseparability of farms and cattle is clear to many agrarians who tend the land and their animals today.  In Wisconsin, the most common association is with milking stock, but just as vital is the care and raising of beef cattle.  Tweed and Melanie Shuman of Shuman Cattle Company, who live just outside Hayward, Wisconsin, are the present caretakers of the family farm Tweed’s grandfather purchased in 1956.  For the Shumans, horses and cattle are their passion.

“I might be an RN during the day,” Tweed related with a knowing smile and twinkle in his dark eyes, “But really, I’m a cowboy at heart.” 

The family (which just recently bore its first member of the fifth generation of farmers) works closely with their four quarter horses and English Shepherd working dog Zoe to move and maintain the 150-head Red Angus cattle herd.  The Shumans take pride in the high quality of their genetic line, and their bulls are prized by breeders across the nation.

“So often,” Tweed frowns a moment, balancing words, “Everyone wants the black ones.  But really, the red calves are much rarer, and once you take the hide off, it’s the same animal underneath.”

“And in the black strains, you can hide other genetics, like Holstein,” Melanie adds.  “You can’t do that with the red line.  It’s a much truer strain.”

Angus cattle were first developed from a variety of short and stocky breeds living in Northeastern Scotland, along with strains introduced by the Viking invasions of the Early Middle Ages.  By the 1700’s, selective breeding methods in Scotland began producing hearty, well muscled, poled (hornless) cattle in black and brown (known as “red”) coloration.  Hugh Watson, of Keillor Scotland, is considered the father of the modern Aberdeen Angus breed, beginning in 1808 when his father bequeathed his best cows and a bull to help his son set up in farming.  By the 1880’s, members of this Angus line had cross the Atlantic to call America home.

While black is a predominating color in Angus cattle, the red color is a recessive gene.  Breed reds to reds, and the color stays true.  These beautiful animals stand nobly in the field, their coats shining, their ears and tails twitching alertly.  They sail as rusty-colored ships through the tall grass of the pasture or rest contentedly beneath the tall pines on the edge of the fields.

“Transitioning to all grass-based practices has been a priority for us for the past couple of years.”  Tweed smiles as he thinks on his prized herd waiting for the spring grass to grow again.  “Grain prices are getting very tough, and we want to do what’s right for the land and the animals.  We’re also growing more conscious of our environmental impact, and we want this farm to be here for our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  It’s all about doing the right thing, being stewards of the land, and being able to live the lifestyle that we care about and passing that onto the next generation.”

“I’d love to someday have a bed and breakfast at the farm,” Melanie muses.  “Of course, that’s my project, but it would be great to give people an experience of what it’s like on a farm.  So many people today are disconnected from their food source.  They don’t know where it came from or who raised it—how it was raised.  All that is important.”

The Shumans have attended many of the same conferences as my sister (the sheep expert in the family), learning more about new methods in rotational grazing to optimize the relationship between livestock and the landscape.  Changing long-running methods on a farm is never easy, but the Shumans have made a special effort to transition their livestock to grass-fed, pastured lifestyles, and already they can see a difference.

Just this week, the Shumans brought in the first coolers full of cuts of meat from a young grass-fed steers for us to retail at Farmstead Creamery & Café.  Their pride in a job well accomplished with livestock that is so close to their souls shone as they taught us the use and style of each cut and talked prices.

“We’re not in this to get rich,” Tweed nods, his well-loved cowboy hat tipping as well.  “That’s not why people go into farming.  We care about raising good, healthy animals, without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and offering people good, wholesome products they can trust.”

There is something truly magical about the interrelationship of humans and animals, working animals (horses and working dogs) and stock, and of herdsmen and women with their watchful eyes doing their best for the land and their livestock.  This is where I want my food to come from—not from a feedlot where soon it will be illegal to document the conditions with photographs or video; not from a confinement feeding operation where the animals never get to run through the field or sniff at a fresh spring wind; not from the floor of a plant where conditions are so horrid that worker are losing parts of their own bodies to wayward knives and unprotected machinery.

I want my food to be raised on the family farm, like Tweed and Melanie’s or my own, where the pigs get to root in the earth and the cattle roam contentedly in the field.  Don’t tell me that some recent study found that the vitamins in organic lettuce are the same as commercially produced, non-organic specimens.  The vitamins are only a tiny piece of the holistic picture of growing and raising food.  Instead, ask this:  who are the farmers, and what are their lives like?; what is the health of the land that supported this food, and how well is it being cared for?; how sustainable is the system that raised this food, and how far did it have to travel to reach my table? 

In the face of self-protecting agribusiness statistics, questions like these help us re-ground in what really matters when it comes to our food.  It is about knowing your farmer, learning their story, and reclaiming your freedom of choice.  The efforts of small-scale, family farmers like the Shumans and their beautiful Red Angus herd are part of what really matters—keeping the cattle on the homestead, with care, compassion, and sustainably minded stewardship.  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

 
 

First Snow

There is something magical about the first snow of winter.  The grays and browns of November disappear beneath a blanket of clean, white, freshness.  The late autumn rains have been transformed into tiny, lacy crystals that fall in soft heaps about the farmhouse, catching on tree limbs and rooftops as they make their lazy dance from the clouded skies.  The earth looks refreshed, the nights are brightened by the added gleam, and the morning’s frosty crystals clinging to every surface sparkle like precious stones.

The first snows are welcomed on the farm, covering fall’s muddy season and insulating perennial crops.  The snow also helps to hold down exposed topsoil against fierce wintry winds.  I can remember one Christmas years back when there was very little snow.  A farmer down the road had plowed his fields late in autumn, and the land lay bereft of any cover.  Blown by strong winds, some of that topsoil spread over our own fields and yard.  The incident is still known in our family as “The Brown Christmas.”

This year, the Thanksgiving snow pounced upon us.  We were out in the farmyard all day, cleaning barns, sorting sheep, and mulching asparagus beds.  The warm weather was prime opportunity to squeeze in as many of the last-minute autumn projects as possible before winter settled in.  But come evening, the winds changed directions and began to blow cold, bringing first sleet and then snow.

However, there was one project we hadn’t been able to finish that day.  While the chickens and turkeys had been moved into winter quarters earlier, the ducks were still in their mobile unit on the edge of the field.  By morning, they were fairly snowed in, and we trudged out to rescue them, bundled up in Carharts, scarves, and insulated gloves.  The white Pekin ducks were huddled, snug in a blanket of downy feathers and quite unappreciative of our heroic efforts in the biting wind and driving snow.  As they quacked and wriggled, we tucked a duck under each arm and trudged off to the barn, where a safe pen full of fluffy hay awaited them, corralled by wooden pallets.  As soon as the first two ducks were released into the pen, they immediately stuck their long necks through the pallets, hoping to return to their friends in the snow.  But they needn’t have fussed because those ducky friends were coming soon, one armload at a time, until all were secure and warm in their new winter home.

After this parade of quacking, we hurried back to open the Creamery in time for the morning’s first clients.  Still a little out of breath and scrambling to ready the coffee, I apologized for not being as ready as usual.

“Were you out playing in the snow?” the client asked, chuckling.

“No, well, actually I was carrying ducks.”

The story then unfolded with much mirth at the thought of ungrateful ducks amidst a snowdrift being rescued by hearty farmers.

Snowdrifts often carry their own stories.  At least on our farm, they seem to appear in more or less the same places each year—right in front of the garage doors or along the road by the north field, for example.  While this can become irksome for the shovel-wielding adult, such piles of snow are play havens for children—especially when they are enhanced by the efforts of the snow plow.

I was eleven, and Kara was eight, when our family spent a year in Arizona.  Down in the Phoenix valley, there was hardly any sense of autumn, and Christmas lights on the saguaro cactus just did not compared with winters in the North.  So when we took the long trek back to the farm for the holidays, the snow seemed piled even higher than usual. Perhaps it was, or perhaps our imaginations embroidered our perceptions.  Either way, those great piles of snow were irresistible!

Mother had always warned us to be careful when digging tunnels into the snow-banks.  There was no digging at all, of course, when the snow plow was at work.  And there were precautions against chipping too far into the walls, making them thin and causing the top to collapse and bury us alive!  But while it mitigated our efforts, such advice did not deter the eagerness with which we attacked those snow piles with large spoons or small shovels, hacking and chipping, pushing the remnants out and away from the hole until our suits and mittens were sopping wet.

Such hard work calls for a good mug of cocoa and time to sit by the warm wood fire on the fieldstone hearth.  Beyond the expansive snow forts, there were snow angels to make if it was soft and powdery, or we could trounce big words one letter at a time into the snow, hoping they could be seen by the small aircraft that sometimes flew overhead.  But if the snow was soft and sticky, the yard would soon be adorned with slithery snow dragons, imposing snow lions, or handsome snowmen with their accompanying snow dogs.  And, of course, there was sledding!

As one grows older, sometimes the snow can become wearisome.  An incident still fresh in my mind occurred last winter, when we were building the aquaponics greenhouse.  The great metal rafters reached high into the sky, and we had recently finished the polycarbonate side walls and end panels.  We were hoping to have the double-plastic roof in place, but winds had delayed that project, when it snowed.  It was more than a little snow, wet, and heavy.  After five hours straight of shoveling out the inside of the greenhouse, we were ready for that roof to go up!

But when the first snows of November come, I am always touched by the magical beauty and transformative nature of this crystallized water.  There is a certain hush when it snows those large, lacy flakes.  Looking out the window is like looking out from the inside of those shakable balls full of white flakes.  The sun peaks from behind the clouds, and all is turned to shimmering patterns of light.  All this has a way of bringing out the wonder of the inner child, the little voice inside that still has the urge to write big words in the snow or plop down and leave an angel in the whiteness.

Maybe that inner child will find you in these early snows this week.  Drive safely, laugh often, and fix a steaming cup of cocoa by the fireside.  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

 

They Came from the East

On camels, bearing gifts?  Well, this is true in the first Christmas story, but for life on the homestead in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the wintry gifts from the east are usually in the form of snow—in copious amounts.  Being able to read the weather through observation has been an important skill for farmers throughout the ages at any time of the year.

In the summer, our eyes watch the clouds to the west as they climb over the towering red pines behind the barn.  Puffy cumulus clouds (what Grandma calls “God’s sheep”) ho-hum by, hoping for enough warmth and moisture to grow into something grander.  The towering cumulonimbus, with its gargantuan anvil shape and lightening-illuminated bulges are the culprits of summertime scurrying to cover and bring the animals into the farm for safety.  I have spent my fare share of being outside in the worst of storms to save turkeys from drowning or greenhouse doors from being blown off their hinges.

But in wintertime, the storms come more subtly.  There might be little forewarning by a leading edge of high, wispy cirrus clouds (wintry skies are often filled with them, without too much meaning regarding storms), or the preceding flock of little cumulus collections.  There is no visible tower of nimbus-ness to warn of impending snow, and no rush of sudden wind from the west.  A light dusting or minor snowfall may be blown from this direction, but the real worry lies in the storms that that blow from the east.

Winter is full of mystery.  Sometimes, in the midst of chores on a cloudless, sunny morning, I’ll look up to see lacy, glittering flakes dancing down from nothing—literally “thin air.”  At other times, moisture-laden clouds will hover for days, dropping nothing.  My Uncle Jon, who is a naturalist, always says that he can tell the wintry weather by the size of the snowflakes.  Large, lacy flakes indicate that the snowfall will not last long, whereas tiny flakes suggest a greater likelihood of a longer snow and more accumulation.  This larger-is-less and littler-is-more theory is not unlike the farm saying about rain—if the chickens dash for the coop, it’s only a passing shower.  If the chickens stay out in it, it’s going to rain for a while.

What kind of snowfall and how much is no light matter for farmers.  Just a few winters ago, the snow fell so fast, deep, and heavy, that it collapsed barns in Minnesota.  The winds blew the drifting snow to the lea side of the barn, causing a great imbalance of weight on the roof.  Farmers raced in to try to save their cattle, but many were injured or lost, including some of the farmers.  One dairyman remembered the terrifying sound of the nails popping out of the rafters as the roof gave way.  Still others were lost from falling off roofs as they tried to remove the snow before structures collapsed.

The worst types of winter snows on farms are preceded by ice.  Sticking to every surface, it fills latches and freezes doors shut and creates a layer on which the snow can securely stick instead of sliding off.  It is the same type of weather that downs trees and power lines, making roads particularly hazardous.  Add to this a boisterous wind, and now there is lowered visibility and gathering drifts to complicate the situation.

But the chores still need to be done!  In pioneer days, ropes were tied from the house to the barn, so farmers could hang on as they made their way through blinding snow.  In Vermont, some farms solved the problem by connecting all the buildings together.  This way, in winter, there was no need to go outside at all!  The oldest methods for livestock housing in Scandinavia put the human living quarters right above those of the animals—conserving heat and need for care, as well as providing watchful eyes against cattle thieves.

Of course, years ago, the snows were quite spectacular compared to what we commonly experience today.  Grandpa remembers coming up to the farm in the 1960’s for hunting season.  He made the mistake of stepping off a trail and found himself swallowed in a snowbank.  After considerable struggling, Grandpa managed to rescue himself, but he never made that mistake again.  Other stories tell of tying brightly colored objects to the radio antennas of cars to alert other vehicles of approaching traffic at intersections—the snow was so high that it was difficult to see the actual car!

But why should the recipe for such heavy snowfalls come from easterly winds?  This is because the “backside” of winter storms hold the most moisture.  Just when it seems that all has passed, the snowload arrives.  Such a glut of frozen water crystals arrived during one of my March residencies at college in Vermont.  Grandma and Grandpa were helping hold down the farm, and they sent pictures of the two-and-a-half feet that had fallen overnight.  It took our friend Jon several hours of laboring with his snowplow to make a path back to the farm and our house.  We even had to shovel trails to the chicken coops, just to get through.  The snow slowly curled off the southern wing of the barn roof, like a tidal wave in extremely slow motion with little foamy ice formations at its tip.  The sight was both magical and alarming—I did not want to be standing beneath that ice wave when it finally broke free from the edge of the roof!  If you hear a rumble, run!!!

Today, as we prepare for the weekend’s threat of “winter weather alerts,” the beehives are snuggly wrapped beneath their insulation and tar paper, the last of the panels of hog fencing are drug into the shed, and the stashes of firewood are heartily restocked.  The shovels await, and the sleds still listing in the rafters dream of frosty piles that announce the transition from wheelbarrows to skids for hauling this and that across the barnyard. 

And as the storm approaches, our eyes and thoughts will be turned to the east, in expectation.  Is that a big snowflake or a little one?  Which way has the wind sock atop the barn turned?  How gray grows the afternoon sky?  It’s time to hunker down, stay warm, and make certain the animals are comfortable and well-fed before a long winter’s night.  It’s also a good time to sit by the fire with a good book or play music with friends and family.

As the snows settle in around us this winter, imagine the days when tunnels were carved in the drifts to access Main Street businesses or when country folks had to climb from their second story windows for a bit of fresh air.  Maybe someone in your family has memorable snowstorm stories—the day Mom made it to class only to find the campus was closed and hazard the long walk back home or the time the snow blew so hard no-one could open the back door onto the porch for days.  Winter is a wonderful time for such tales as well as for making new memories amidst the blustery winds from the east.  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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