North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

The first couple of years after we moved up to the farm full-time offered classic Northwoods summers—cool, moist mornings, a little rain in the afternoons, and maybe three days of 80 degrees.  There really wasn’t any need for air conditioning, and we hardly ever needed to water the garden.  But by the third year, a new normal had settled into the Northland—eight years of drought. 

Each summer, the drought would start earlier.  One year, it started in August, the next in July, then June, until it even started in April.  Imagine a year with hardly any April showers!  It was an environmental process entirely terrifying for a family that was trying to build a livelihood from tending the land.  What if the wells ran dry?  How would we maintain the animals?  Pastures dried up, trees suffered, and insect pests we’d never seen before gnawed their way through the land.

This year, however, things have shifted again.  Our long, cold winters reminded local old-timers of yesteryears, with piles of snow everywhere and prolonged cold snaps that made trees pop in the night.  Not too many years ago, St. Patrick’s Day was 80 degrees and we planted the garden in April.  What a contrast this year!

This spring was the classic, “Don’t put out anything until Memorial Day” that Grandma used to caution.  Soils stayed cool well into June, leaving everyone feeling their gardens are running a month behind schedule.  But at least we can say that we haven’t had to water this year!

Out of the polar vortex of winter and spring, we’ve instead climbed into what I’ve been teasingly referring to as “Monsoon Season.”  If the weather is predicting even a 20% chance, we’ll get hammered.  Sprinkles, rashes of rain, and downpours.  Lots of downpours.  Yesterday, while cleaning chicken coops, Mother Nature was having a grand time playing peek-a-boo with me. 

Now I’m sunny, now I’m raining, now I’m sunny, now I’m raining.

This spring, the creek that passes under our lane rose so high, we began to fear it might creep over the roadway or erode beneath.  It’s entirely fortuitous that we’re experimenting with plastic mulch this year in the garden or most of the beautiful soil may have been washed away.  I’ve hardly even touched the water in the rain barrels except for filling the ducks’ kiddy pool, and lately chore time has been pushed around based on when the latest gully-washer eases.

I’m not complaining—this is exponentially better than a drought—but it does seem that the new normal is anything but normal.  The other day, the morning air smelled cool and crisp of September, another morning feels like October, and then another like April.  Perhaps we’re just having a bit of English weather lately:  moderate with moisture often.  Can you see the different greens of Ireland yet?

But not having to water the garden comes with another tradeoff:  not being able to make hay.  This week, we’re going for it, as there finally appears to be a four-day dry stretch.  Typically, we’d be hoping to make hay near the end of June before the grasses have headed out.  But this year, there wasn’t any chance of that happening. 

Off in the forecast, there would seem to be a break coming, but then as the days drew near, NOPE, they’d change their minds and we’d be back to more rain.

The longer the hay stands before cutting, the less prime the nutrients, but there’s no worth to cut hay that’s been rained on.  It molds and composts within the bale, heating up to such high temperatures that barns will go up in flames.  We had a few wet bales once, which we tore apart that same afternoon and laid out in the lawn to cool before feeding right away.  We had to wear gloves to keep from being burned—that’s how hot those bales became so quickly.

On the other hand, the ducks haven’t minded the monsoon season one bit, dancing and prancing and preening in the rain.  The month-old ducklings are still getting used to it, running into their shelter in fear of the falling sky.  But once they’ve shed their golden fuzz for oiled, white feathers, their fear of rain droplets will be quite abated. 

“It’s good duck weather” Grandpa would say as puddles form everywhere.  Little kids on farm tours have loved the puddles too…though not the parents.  I wonder if I’ll be hatching tadpoles in some of them soon—the puddles have become such permanent farm fixtures this year.

I don’t know what it was about last autumn, but the weather seemed to wait for me to be all the way out in the pasture tending the turkeys in their tractor pens and then POUR!  I’d hunch up, crunch up, squint my eyes as the rain dripped down my face.  And then once I’d have everything packed up in the golf cart to head back, the skies would lighten and the rain would stop.  Really, was this some type of game?

This year, there’s less of a sense of tease and more of an “I’ll just rain whenever I feel like it.”  Two Mondays ago, we were butchering our first batch of chickens.  Huge storm clouds were forming that afternoon, sailing to the south, then the north, then the south.

“Plenty of room in the sky over there!” I told the clouds, then blew at them in a humorous attempt to keep them away (as if one little puff could do such a thing).  “You have to wait until we’re done!”  A couple of sprinkles was the sky’s reply, but the deluge did wait to hit the farm at nightfall, after we were cleaned up and the equipment was stored away.  At least nature can have some courtesy…when she feels like it.

Will our little monsoon continue, or will we find ourselves with another dry August?  It’s hard to say at this point.  If the new normal is anything but normal, then this year will remain a weather wildcard.  But hopefully all this moisture has filled the lakes and worked to replenish aquifers.  After this week’s haying, though, I’ll probably be reaching for the raincoats again.  But listen skies, let me get that hay crop in the barn first, ok?!  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


Girl Power

“So…where are the men?” 

“So, on your husband’s farm…”

“So, there’s no men on the farm?”

Those awkward questions that start with “So…” are certain to lead to poking and prodding into some aspect of our farm that isn’t “normal,” or “usual,” or whatever you’d like to call it.

“So…it’s just you, your sister, and your mom?”

Yes, that’s right, and usually one or two summer college interns.  Sometimes we get neighbor help for a few of the big jobs (making hay, butchering chickens) but the bulk, the grunt, the everyday, and yes even driving tractor—that’s us.  Three women, all under 5’5”.

“So…you’re not married yet?”

I’ve been confronted with variations on the “So where are all the men?” question so frequently that I’m tempted to fib and say that we keep them in a closet and bring them out when we need them!  But that might seem a bit crude, so I just keep smiling and explain that this is a farm run by Girl Power.

Now, for us, Girl Power certainly doesn’t mean romping about the farm in short, frilly skirts with cowboy boots and a furry pink hat.  If you’ve run into us on a hard-working farm day (like Mondays), we’re usually be-mudded in the garden, tools in hand, or mucking the barn with our skid-steer and honeywagon.  It’s elbow grease, “Get-er-done,” stick-through-it bootstrapping.  Chase us around for a day on the farm, and maybe I won’t have to laugh off another comment like:

“So, how do you have all this food around and stay so thin?”

The truth is that Girl Power on the farm is nothing new.  Women have been an integral part of agriculture since its inception, participating in the domestication of plants and animals, the building of homesteads, and the development of the idea of “the farm.”  Why, then, does it seem odd today that ladies should be farmers? 

It gets really disparaging when I’m asked, “So, does that make you a farmerette?”

One of my favorite quotes was given to us by our contractor, Jon, after seeing it on his calendar.  It’s since faded and torn, the author unknown, but the phrase is still cherished.  “A woman who can drive tractor is someone to call in an emergency.”  Yes, that’s right, we can handle the bumps and hiccups, the sleepless nights lambing or hatching chicks, the chore nights in the rain and the wind and the cold, the mud and the grime and the cleaning…cleaning…cleaning.

“Women actually make the best beekeepers,” my mentor Mr. Rowe has remarked on several occasions.  “They’re less hurried and more gentle with the bees—careful—which makes a big difference to the queen.”

Someday, I’ll rejoice when the florescent-vested fellows at the fleet store refrain from, “So what kind of oil did he want?”  Please!  I know this is the Northwoods, but really?  They’ll catch on sometime.


Extreme Chores

Bundled in 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, hat, gloves, and face scarf, my glasses iced over by steamy breath, facing winter chores can become daunting even before leaving the back door.

External faucets are frozen closed, so we fill five-gallon buckets in the utility sink with warm water for the pigs, lifting them high over the lip of the sink, then trundling them out to the orange sled waiting outside.  That hearty, toboggan-long sled sure does get a workout in wintertime, hauling water, hay, feed, fodder, and wood this way and that along our paths and trails across the barnyard.

These paths are packed tightly where we’ve trodden them down for months, but should a stray foot wander off—poof—you’ve sunk in above your knee.  This is especially hazardous when the trails have drifted over and it’s hard to know exactly where that curve in the path used to be.  It is equally obvious when you’ve guessed incorrectly.

Shoveling has been a daily practice for chores this winter.  As rigorous as it can be, I wonder that some form of shoveling isn’t featured at the Olympics.  The bend, the scoop, the throw…and then the tamping and scraping for the sticky snow that won’t let go of the shovel.  There’s the deck, the paths, the stoops in front of the garages, and a long stretch in front of the barn to keep the banks at bay.  Either the land has risen or the barn was always built on land a little downhill from parts of the barnyard, and spring flooding can be a real issue.  Every year, we hope for a slow melt that will allow the snows to sink gracefully into the aquifer rather than running in a torrent down the gravel road, washing out the culvert, or pooling like a lake inside the barn.  While I’m not quite ready for spring and its mounting workload, a little break from the snow and bitter cold would be welcome.

Shovel, shovel, shovel.  The high tunnel where we raise vining tomato plants in the summer is half buried in a drift.  I can only see the top portion of the door.  But with the huge pre-Birkie storm on the way, we had to make room for the new snow to be able to slide off the top and not continue to crush the arching structure.  Just wading out to the high tunnel was hip-deep in places, past the row of wind-breaking spruces sheltering mounds of dismembered pinecone tidbits that the squirrels have left.

It’s tricky shoveling out a plastic-film sided greenhouse.  Dig along the sides and the snow still lingering on the top slips and slides and flops down in your trench, so you get to shovel it out again.  And it’s soooooo easy to poke a hole in the side with the corner of the scoop, just as you hit a chunk of ice that refuses to give way.  We’ll have a few nicks to patch in the spring, but at least the snow has a place to go, rather than collapsing our precious growing structure.

Drifts on rooftops have grown dangerously heavy—two feet deep in places!  In the news are featured stories of barn and outbuildings collapsing under the tremendous weight.  Borrowing a roof rake from a neighbor, we take turns chopping and scraping, trying to make a dent in the snowload.  The long and rambling woodshed (originally used to store horse-drawn farm machinery because it was easy to back into) was the first on the list. 

There was no chance at a sudden rush of releasing snow as happens on the south side of the barn roof—rumbling and thundering and smashing in an avalanche against the side of the machine shed beside it.  So it was chop, chop and chop, chop at the drift above, wading through the snow.  The stacking pile below now leaves but a modest gap between the roofline and the ground!  The woodshed is very nearly just a tunnel!  Seriously, it’s looking rather like a polar expedition around here, rather than a farm.

My other running joke lately is that we’re farming in the trenches.  Veritable high-sided louge tracks for the sled are guarded by great mounds of snow banks.  Sometimes it’s hard to know where Mom or Kara are in the farmyard because you can’t see over the sides of the trenches, even though the packed trails raise my shoulders higher than the top of the five-foot woven wire chicken fence.

Just a few days ago, chores turned into an experience of quicksand.  It was evening and quite dark except for the brilliant pin-pricks of stars above.  I entered the frosty-sided chicken coop to sadly find that one of my ladies had died (likely in a fight with another hen over nesting box territory…sometimes freaky things can happen with chickens).  I carefully wrapped her in a feed sack and endeavored to take her out to the old pump house for safe keeping until we could dispose of her properly.

The pump house still has the old hand pump in it but the hand-dug well collapsed years ago thanks to a raucous population of woodchucks.  Long past its days as a milk house, we use the shed to store garden tools, bins, extra boxes, and odds and ends (there always seems to be an endless supply of odds and ends on a farm!).  With my poor deceased chicken wrapped in a feed sack in hand, I faced the silver-sided pump house.  Between me and my destination lay the cliff of snow shoveled away from the front of the barn.  It seemed like rock climbing gear might be necessary, but I bravely embarked up the face, over the edge, and then sank nearly out of sight into the soft drift on the other side.

Hollering for help was to no avail, for the rest of the crew was well off at the Red Barn with belloring rams and the donkey.  Would they hear my snow-muffled cries?  Nope.  So now what?  My left leg twisted behind me, my right leg straight down to the waist in fluff, my arms holding the chicken, this was feeling like a predicament.  I tried to push with one hand against the snow, but it was so soft it too only sunk deep without resistance.  What if I simply disappeared without a trace?  How long would it take someone to find me?

I set the chicken aside with a poof of white, icy fluff and tried rolling on my back, then from side to side, in an effort to pack down some of the snow.  What I really needed was a set of snowshoes, but those were quite a ways away…all the way back at the house.  So, my mind raced, how could I make instant snowshoes to get out of this drowning mess?  It’s amazing the odd, scary, and funny things you mind can think up when you’re completely stuck in a snowbank.

Managing to pull one knee underneath me, I braced all of my left lower leg and foot into one long knee-to-toe “foot,” then drug my right knee out of the drift.  One bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken, the next bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken.  The process was awkward, to say the least, but I managed to reach the shed (thankfully the door opened inward), deposit my package, and wade back to the safety of the shoveled walk, plopping down panting.

Mom and Kara rounded the bend with a sled full of hay bales, their water buckets clanging.  “What has been taking you so long?”

Well, I tell you, this has sure been a winter for extreme chores.  And yes, Farmstead Creamery is shoveled out too, so you can always come on over for fresh greens, eggs, pastured meats, delicious bakery goods, and more.  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


Spring Cleaning

When interns come to our farm, there are lots of things to learn, but one of the first lessons goes like this:  half of good farming is cleaning, another half keeping things organized, another half planning three steps ahead of what you’re doing now, and the last half is saved for picking up after unforeseen disasters.  If that sounds like too many “halves” to you, then you might guess that farming also involves having more things that need doing than can possibly be completed.  This week, however, we’ve been catching up on the cleaning part.

The saga really started in January—or didn’t, to be precise.  Typically, a light January or February thaw gives us a chance to clean out the hen coop and freshen things up.  But with no thaw, the bedding and droppings stayed hard as a block of chicken-flavored ice that wasn’t going anywhere without a good fight.  By March, things were desperate.  Hacking paths into the snow in our yard big enough to drag out the wheelbarrow, we dug and chipped and drug out the odiferous concoction and heaped it amidst the two feet of snow.  This, of course, meant that a second cleanup into the manure spreader was necessary to relieve the yard once the snow subsided.  Next time you take a farm tour, be glad you don’t have to wade through three feet of last winter’s chicken excrement!

Our dear “honey wagon” (some tongue-in-cheek farmer must have thought that term up for a manure spreader) has certainly had a workout since it arrived on our farm as an already well-used piece of machinery.  In the days when we had 25 chickens and 2 sheep, a pitchfork, shovel, and wheelbarrow was all we needed to keep things tidy.  But as both numbers began to multiply, our hands and backs were ready for a break.

Grandpa remembers the days when he and his dad would pitchfork the manure from the cow barn out the back door into a winter pile.  Come spring, it was much more of a heap or “small mountain” as Grandpa recalls from his teenage memories on the old family farm in central Illinois.  “We’d fork it out the door, then fork it up onto a wagon pulled by horses (because we didn’t have a manure spreader) and then we’d fork it back out onto the field while the horses plodded along.  You gals have it easy.”

If you’re not familiar with the workings of a honey wagon, imagine a long, narrowish two-wheel trailor with three sides (the back is left open).  Along the bottom of the wagon runs a chain on each side along the length, supporting bars that slowly pull along the wagon floor to the back, drop off, come under the bed of the wagon, and then rotate back up like a large conveyor belt.  At the back of the spreader is a stout bar supporting what look like large metal webbed hands called “flails” pointed in different directions that spin around fast from the bar.  When the wagon is hooked to the tractor’s power takeoff and engaged, the combination of moving conveyor bars and flailing paddles spreads whatever might be in the wagon in a relatively even pattern out the back.

That is, unless the wind is blowing from behind you—then you get a nice even spray all over the tractor and yourself.  There’s more than one reason we have large-brimmed sunhat on the packing list for our interns.  “But remember,” Grandpa says, “My dad always said that’s the smell of money.”

After restoring our historic gambrel barn in 2001, there was considerably more space for housing sheep.  But even with the manure spreader to help with hauling and distributing the nutrient-rich bedding, we were still chucking it into the wagon by hand.  Some spring manure packs three feet deep could take days to clean out, and it was terribly hard on our hands, shoulders, and backs.  It was time to upgrade with some smart machinery!

Leave it to Grandpa to find the answer.  Another used piece, looking for a new home, only this time a bit more modern than the spreader.  Let’s just say that some small bobcats are trouble (for ducks) but others are pretty awesome powered pitchforks!  Kara whirs around between the hand-hewn tamarack timbers of the barn with surgical precious, attacking the soiled hay and wood shavings with vigor. 

But it’s more than just cleaning things out.  Composted animal manure bedding is a vital nutrient source for soils through organic and permaculture practices.  For our current barn-cleaning project, we’re working to improve our hayfields by spreading this excellent organic matter mixed with lime to improve pH and calcium levels.  Another load of black gold pulls away as Mom engages the Allis D15 tractor with its characteristic grumph-humming chug.  Earlier, we had the creative inspiration to use the honey wagon to spread well-rotted compost (humus) over the garden and potato patches.  Pitchfork, shovel, and 5-gallon buckets?  Save those for the small jobs; we are getting serious!

The other fun (hah!) aspect of spring cleaning on our farm are all those dishes I meant to get to last fall…if only there was just one more nice, sunny day.  I don’t mean dishes like what pile up at the kitchen sink—I mean “chicken dishes.”  Red-and-white plastic waterers, orange bell drinkers, metal bucket and range feeders, pails, ice-cream buckets, heat lamps, and all the works.  They waited for me at the back door to our walk-out basement, patiently.  It was one of those things that doesn’t go away, despite trying to ignore it.  No, the chicken dishes were still there after the ice, which had bound them all together onto the concrete, melted this spring.

I attacked the hoard in batches.  First off were all the feeders and waterers that were needed for the imminent arrival of baby chicks.  Scrubbing, brushing, sanitizing, laying out on towels to air dry—the floor was soon covered with bright, clean chicken dishes.  While cleaning isn’t my favorite thing to do (is it anyone’s?), at least it’s the sort of thing where you can actually see the progress you’ve made.  But then, off they go to the brooders, and it doesn’t take long for them to get all good and dirty again.  It’s like laundry—it never ends.

Now we just have to move those piglets out to their summer pasture paddocks, pen the yearling ewes out in the yard for the day, and muck out the Clear-Span “lamb barn” sometime soon, get the rams into their summer home and clear out the “red barn,” and we should be in good shape with our spring cleaning.  We’re pecking away at the yard work and garden, and summertime will be here before we know it.  Best wishes for your spring cleaning projects, 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


Nature's Catch-Up Game

I don’t think anyone can argue that this has been a strange spring.  Or shall we say, what spring?  Winter, winter, winter, winter, summer.  In one week, we had 18 inches of snow, followed by 80-degree weather!  Many of the domestic plants, like our apple trees, are just starting to barely leaf, holding back their buds as if wondering whether it’s truly safe to come out.

But Mother Nature isn’t waiting.  Already along the edges of the fields, the wild black cherries have opened their tiny clusters of white flowers.  Trilliums are beginning to appear in the woods, and everywhere the leaves are popping in their early spring shades of glowing green.

After the last snow melted, perennials like chives and rhubarb burst out of the ground, growing for all they were worth.  It is as if nature is playing her catch-up game—we’ve only got so much time before the fall frosts, so it’s time to book it!  With the recent rains, the yard has sprung into dark-green life, and violets and daffodils are beginning to bloom.

Last spring was an insane global-climate-change roller coaster.  First came the major warm-up in February that fooled all the plants.  March was like July, with 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day.  The apples bloomed.  Then the temperature plummeted (as did the apple crop potential), and everyone who had put in their gardens early had to start over.

The old saying up here is that you’re not really safe until Memorial Day, and we’ve witnessed frosts into the second week of June.  Some old-timers say they’ve seen it snow every month but July!  (Poor sledding up here that month, you know.)  Some of my artist friends who live in New York think this must be the end of the earth…who would ever want to live in the wilds of Wisconsin’s Northwoods?

But they don’t know to listen for the deep-throated call of the Bittern in the marshes—oonk-a-loonk, oonk-a-loonk—or watch for the return of the red-winged blackbirds.  The swallows dance in the air around the barnyard, causing the chickens to cry “HAWK!” because they’ve forgotten these friendly summer residents.  Tree swallows flit at the opening of bird houses, barn swallows swoop above the sheep’s heads, and cliff swallows with their yellow masks dive up into the rafters of the woodshed.

My urban friends don’t know to wait for the smell of the damp, cool earth as you turn in new compost for planting the garden or the change in the wind as a spring thunderstorm rolls through.  April showers bring May flowers?  Well, this year it has to be May showers bring May flowers—all part of nature’s catch-up game.  This spring, everything seems in a hurry to grow, bloom, and nest.  The bulbs planted last autumn in front of Farmstead Creamery propelled their eager leaves through the mulch as if to shout “We’re Here!”  Even the brave little cherry tree we planted last year sends forth tiny green leaves of hope.

This week, we loaded our laying hens into their mobile summer coop unit that sits atop a hay wagon and rolled the team out into the pasture.  Circled by the safety of an electric mesh fence, we released the ladies into their summer habitat.  Tails held high bobbed from side to side as they raced in all directions, scratching for worms and young, tender grass.  This was the long-awaited chicken heaven they’d been dreaming about all winter!  Finally, these poultry dreams had come true.

Even Belle, our guard donkey, got a romp out in the pasture during the day—trotting and shaking her head.  She loves to stand out in the rain and let it wash over her, as do the three survivor ducks.  Quacking and flapping their wings, they dig mud holes with their bills and preen their long, white feathers with joy.  Rain!  Nothing marks the transition from the winter season quite so well as a good spring rain—especially when it helps put out forest fires.

Some folks get a little funny when the seasons are changing.  Perhaps they’re not used to it or just not ready.  The welcomed weekend rains settled the dust of the hot, dry winds that had swept through for days, adding fuel to the Gordon wildfire just 45 minutes to the north and west of our farm.  Needless to say, the event had us terribly worried for all the people in its path and wondering what we would have done with all the farm animals should the fire have suddenly changed directions.

The light rain patted on the metal roof that Saturday as a family on vacation trudged into the Café and looked around at delicious farm cheeses, eggs, and homemade granola. 

“Isn’t it nice to be getting some rain,” I offered, bringing out a new tray of fresh muffins.

“Yeah, well,” the mother grumbled.  “Just wish it wasn’t today.”

I shook my head with an internal chuckle.  “Well, it’s better than a forest fire.”  But the lady just humphed, oblivious to the recent area calamity.

Now, I know you folks with lake property would love every day to be sunny and 80 degrees during your vacation, but please remember that the Northwoods is a whole ecosystem and that nature (and farmers) needs a good rain fairly frequently to stay healthy and your lakes filled.  Besides, a light rain seldom keeps outdoors folks inside.

We were planting peas in a newly-prepared garden bed just yesterday, with a light, muggy breeze teasing at our hair.  Our intern LeeAra was on one side, I on the other, and the bucket of soaked peas was in the middle.  A low rumble rolled over the brow of the sky.  We looked at each other, then up at the cauliflower-crowned clouds converging on all sides.  This wasn’t going to be some light spring shower.  It’s more like…how fast can you plant peas before the lightening gets too close!  We called in reinforcements and got the job (and chores) done just in time.

I hope that real spring temperatures will come soon, along with tulips in the yard and more gentle white trilliums on the forest floor.  When will the first monarch butterfly be spotted at the farm?  When will the first bluebird sing from the garden fence post?  Spring is truly here, as nature plays her wondrous catch-up game towards summer’s glory.  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



Artisan Farming

(Traditional Folk Song)

O, I like to rise when the sun she rises

Early in the mornin’

I like to hear them small birds singin’

Merrily upon their laylum

And hurrah for the life of the country folk

And to ramble in the new-mown hay.

Everyone who’s lived it knows that “the simple life” isn’t so simple.  It’s getting up early and working late.  It’s getting down and dirty with the animals and in the garden.  It’s always having more things on the “to-do list” for the day than can be accomplished in a week’s time.  But small-scale artisan farming brings a direct connection with the land and all its creatures that is hard to reach from the office or even inside the air-conditioned cab of a highly computerized tractor.  It’s knowing the shifting of the seasons by the change in the smell of the wind, of learning to read the emotions of livestock by their body language, and of finding sheer joy in the summer’s first ripe tomato.

In the spring we sow and harvest mow

That’s how the seasons round they go

But of all the times to choose I may

For to ramble in the new-mown hay.

Artisan farming has many historical role models.  Thomas Jefferson, who championed the notion that our national backbone was in agriculture, devoted considerable time to diversifying his plantation farm—trying new cropping methods and developing new varieties.  His view of American culture and landscape stands in stark contrast with the Hamiltonian belief in urban growth and the power of industry, the latter of which has grown to dominate our society for at least the past 200 years.  Then in the 1900’s, there was Wendall Barry, who as a philosopher and essayist merged the concerns of environmentalism with a growing movement towards agrarianism—sparking a “back-to-the-land” movement that empowered many to reclaim heritage farming methods, breeds, and varieties.  Today, we have locally focused, pasture-based advocates like Joel Salatin, who demonstrate how small-scale, diversified farming can make a substantial positive environmental and community impact.

In the summertime we work the land

With sweaty brow and calloused hand

But in the warming light of the longest day

We’ll go ramble in the new-mown hay.

There is an Old English saying when a bride is getting married—“Something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue”—and such a phrase might also aptly describe artisan farming.  On our farm, a 1950’s-era tractor may be parked alongside a PVC “chicken tractor,” which is a portable pen for pasturing poultry.  (Though, calling it a chicken tractor is a slightly misleading term…it doesn’t actually involve a motor or the farm tractor.)  A chicken coop may be cleaned out with a shovel and an old manure spreader, while the barn gets cleaned with a miniature skid-steer.  Heritage methods are updated with contemporary understanding of crop rotations and pest cycles, and the mix feels antique yet progressive at the same time.

In the autumn time when the leaves do fall

Then it’s apple pickin’ time for all

But when the cider’s pressed and it’s stored away

We’ll go ramble in the new-mown hay.

Artisan farming is diversified, involving complex cycles and systems that nurture each other.  The pigs root up a new patch of garden, eating roots and weeds and working up the sod.  The next year, the space is a vibrantly emerald squash patch.  In the winter, when some of the squashes start to rot in storage, they’re taken out to the chickens, which devour the seeds and pulp gleefully.  The chickens lay chocolate-brown eggs that help give the farmer energy in the morning, and the manure from the chickens goes out to fertilize the fields.  The field grows hay, which is harvested for the sheep to eat in the winter when there’s no grass.  The sheep offer meat in the fall and wool in the spring, and as they graze the lush pasture during the growing season, they naturally scatter their own manure in the fields.  The pastures are shared with the chickens and turkeys, which scratch away and break up pest life cycles, and the processes of permaculture keep going.  The farmer serves as the orchestra conductor—and the elbow grease—that keeps the system flowing as smoothly as possible.

In the wintertime when skies are gray

We hedge and we hitch our time away

But in the summertime when the sun shines gay

We’ll go ramble in the new-mown hay.

When I think about artisan farming, I also think about all the stories.  There are stories from my grandparents and their times growing up on small farms in central Illinois.  There are stories from last summer’s terrible thunderstorm that hit just as we were bringing in the last loads of hay.  And there are stories about the latest adventures with our cantankerous guard donkey named Belle.  Stories find a way to connect the past with the present, heritage with hopes for the future.  They give us a way to look back and laugh at moments on the farm that were anything but funny when we were right in the middle of all the action, and they give us a chance to remember the kind words and deeds of others we’ve met along the journey.  Artisan farmers are often happy to share stories at the farmer’s market or over a cup of steaming coffee—offering these stories is part of passing on the knowledge, experience, and appreciation of this life choice as a contemporary agrarian.

And I like to rise when the sun she rises

Early in the mornin’

I like to hear them small birds singin’

Merrily upon their laylum

And hurrah for the life of the country folk

And to ramble in the new-mown hay.

Do you know your local, artisan farmers?  This week, take some time to learn some of their stories as we enjoy the bountiful harvest of the summer season.  When you offer a moment to listen, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be invited to come on down to the farm sometime and share in a little slice of the simple life.

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

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