North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

I’m imagining some fat, brown, furry rodent, all snug and cuddled in its warm little burrow, curled into a comfy circle of slumber.  Then an entourage of persons wearing top hats arrive with pomp and ceremony, dig the poor fellow out of his hole, and proclaim across the news whether or not the unsuspecting creature has seen its shadow.

The sun is shining!  Oh dear, six more weeks of winter!

Considering last year’s weather patterns, when an 18-inch snow dump pummeled the farm in mid-May, this sounds like we’d be getting off easy.  Let’s see, six weeks would take us not even to the end of March.  Does this sound terribly plausible, given this frigid and snowy winter?  I’m not holding my breath.  Besides, did anyone actually ask the groundhog if he had bothered to look at his shadow?

Equally, it could have been noticed by any the ceremonial folks in top hats that the trees, the cars, or they themselves were casting shadows, and there was hardly any need to bother a sleepy, rotund rodent with the whole affair.  What did it matter to the groundhog?  If they’re anything like the wood chucks that used to sit all fat and sassy in the barn door, they’re smart enough to come out when spring has officially arrived all on their own, without any particular human meteorological proclamation.  And in the meantime, they know exactly where you store your feed…

But winter isn’t entirely a season for moaning and groaning about how long we have to go before the earth warms, the snow melts, and the grass needs mowing again.  Personally, I’m enjoying every day that chicken chores do not include being attacked by a perilous swarm of mosquitoes, awaiting wood ticks, or biting gnats!  It’s the little things like this that sometimes become forgotten in the endless hours of shoveling.

But if you’re still stuck in a mood of doom and gloom over the groundhog’s shadow-seeing exploits, here’s a folk tale about animals in wintertime to bring a bit of cheer.

How Bear Got His Short Tail

Of course, there are lots of stories about Bear.  That’s because Bear was really rather vain.  Everywhere he went, Bear was showing off his big, long, bushy, black tail.  “See!” demanded Bear.  “Don’t you like my tail?!” 

The other animals cowered away, nodding, “Oh yes, Mr. Bear, we love your tail.  It’s the best tail in the whole forest.”  That’s because they knew that brother Bear would get very angry if they didn’t agree, no matter what their personal opinion on tails might be.

But Fox had had quite enough of Bear’s antics.  She too had a long, bushy tail, all sleek and curving with a white tip.  Of course, hers was really the best tail of all, but there was no telling that to Bear.  One of these days, he was going to need to learn his lesson for being so prideful.

It was wintertime when Fox made her plan.  Down to the lake she went with rod and reel, and after cutting a hole in the ice of the lake, she fished most of the morning.  She fished and fished and fished until she had a whole stringerful of graceful, sleek northern and perch and walleye.  Stashing her tackle, she sauntered back up the bank of the lake, humming a pleasing tune to herself.

Bear just happened to be passing by, and the pungent smell of fresh fish caught his attention.  “Fox, say Fox, how did you get all those lovely fish, I say?”

“With my tail,” she grinned, blinking her long, foxy lashes.

“With your tail?”  Bear’s lips were dripping.  Those fish looked so delicious.  With great force of self-will, he just barely held back from swiping the whole lot away from Fox.

She dangled the stringer, teasingly.  “It’s easy, really.  I’m surprised at you, Bear, what with your long and illustrious tail, that you don’t already know how to fish this way.”

“Um, uh, well…”  Bear was trying to hide his ignorance on the subject.  “Maybe you could remind me.  I’m sure it’s just the winter sleepiness that has made the trick slip my mind.”

“Well,” Fox began, speaking low so as not to spoil the secret on other small ears in the forest.  “Take that big claw of yours and cut a nice hole in the ice, big enough so your tail can fit through.  Then slip your tail down in that hole and wiggle just the tip, real gentle.  The fish will think it’s bait, and they’ll bite your tail.  It will hurt just a little bit, but when you feel them biting, pull out your tail, and you’ll have a fish!”

Bear was so excited, he didn’t even bother to thank Fox.  Down the banks of the lake he tumbled, until his big, black form skidded out onto the ice.  “Ha ha!” he chuckled to himself.  How silly of Fox to give away her fishing secrets.  If Fox could catch a stringer full of fish in just a morning, why, he would work all day and catch twice as many—no three times as many fish as she!  Why, with his wondrous tail (the best in the whole forest), how could the fish resist?

He took that big claw of his and cut a circle in the ice, just as Fox had said, then sidled backwards and dropped that big, black tail into the hole.  The water was COLD, oh it was COLD!  But Bear gritted his teeth and twitched that tail ever so gentle.  “Ouch!” he yelped, then covered his mouth, for he mustn’t spoil this new secret he had learned.  That must have been a fish bite.  Should he pull his tail out now?  No!  He should wait for another one—ouch—and another one—ouch—and another one.  Surely, if he just waited long enough, his entire tail would be covered in fish, and he’d have them all to eat at once!  The thought pleased Bear very much indeed.

But when Bear finally decided the pull in the catch, he found himself stuck.  That tail wouldn’t come out!  He pulled and tugged and pulled and tugged.  Surely, this must be a lot of fish indeed!  They must be plugging up the hole in the ice and not coming through!  Straining even harder, Bear tried one last time and them, POP, found himself face-first in a snowbank.

All the forest animals began to howl with laughter because Fox had told them to come to the edge of the woods and see.  And when Bear looked behind him, instead of finding the ice covered in fresh fish, there was his tail, frozen solid into the lake. 

Horrified with embarrassment over the loss of his tail and being so foolishly taken by Fox’s story, Bear ran deep into the woods to hide.  And that is how Bear got his short tail.  But remember not to ask Bear to share this story because he still hides in shame each winter in remembrance of the day Fox tricked him so.


Oh groundhog, stay in the warm little burrow and wait until spring.  We humans, in the meantime, will keep on shoveling and telling stories about our wild animal friends.  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


Barn Dance

Circle to the left

And back to the right

Right-hand star

And a left-hand star


Do-si-do your corner

Then do-si-do your partner

Circle left, then

Moving couples on you go to the next set!

A few folks who are new to old-time country dancing gently bump into each other, laughing, as the others pull them along.  It’s early evening, and 80-plus adventuresome people have journeyed down the long gravel road to Farmstead Creamery for a night of local fun and flavor in the Locally Grown Summer Music Series. 

The American folks dance band Duck for the Oyster plays beneath a canopy outside, with the historic yet contemporary blends of fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and upright bass.  Blue and red and green lawn chairs scattered in the yard hold everyone from boisterous children as well as white-haired grandparents, while the dancers circle round in the parking lot.  Dragonflies and hummingbirds flit overhead, there is a gentle breeze, and the air is just cool enough to make the dancing quite a pleasurable invigoration.

Lines go forward and lines go back

Right hands round your partner

Then left hands round your partner

Top couple chasses down the line

Then come on back

Reel the set—there we go

And cast off

Cathy (the dance caller) wears her classic red dress and black dance shoes, directing the participants through the different parts of the dance—like building a story in movement, piece by piece.  In the 18th Century, and even into the 19th, dances were often taught by dancing masters that would travel from village to hamlet.  Flamboyant characters, these masters often created quite a stir in the community, especially for the young ladies.

Community dancing was a way to spend time having fun with your neighbors, to meet the new folks in town, or to look for an eligible partner.  Holding a dance at a farmhouse or a barn was a way to celebrate the completion of harvest or other important seasonal transitions.  If you’ve ever been folk dancing, then you’ll know the unique feeling of coming in at the end of a long day, bone weary, only to feel the spizerinktum come back after a whirling session of dance to lively old tunes.

Heel and toe and heel and toe

And slide, slide, slide

Heel and toe and heel and toe

And slide, slide, slide


Right-hand clap

Left-hand clap

Both-hand clap

Clap your knees

Circle round, then change partners!

Sometimes we Midwestern folks can get a bit hesitant to dance together.  We don’t get many chances to dance together, we feel awkward, and what might other people think of us!  But at a barn dance, it doesn’t matter when you last danced.  It doesn’t matter if you know the steps because everyone’s happy to help you learn, and there’s no fancy footwork involved.  Feel the rhythm of the music and the pressure on your hand from your partner, and just enjoy moving together, laughing together, and being together.

The other magical part of barn dancing comes by working with your partner.  Whether it’s the same person throughout the dance or it changes after each round of the melody, you get to learn something about them through the strength or warmth in their hands, their boldness or fluidness of movement, their smile.  Swings, when executed with confidence, give you that moment of centripetal force that one person alone cannot achieve.  Harkening back before the days of roller-coaster rides, this moment of pull and twirl must have been a special thrill.

Forward, two, three, pivot

And back, two, three, four

Forward, two, three, pivot

And back, two, three, four


Step together, step apart

Put the ladies to the middle

Step together, step apart

Under the arch to your new partner

The music gradually begins to quicken.  Some of the listeners are clapping along, while two of the little girls hop from side to side next to Grandma, in rhythm with the dancers.  The sun is slowly sinking behind the farm, casting golden shafts of light over the tops of the trees.  Then the music stops, everyone claps, and it is time for the groups of twos and threes and fours to pack up their lawn chairs and saunter back to their cars.  Everyone is chatting, shaking hands, and calling, “See you next time!”  Perhaps this has been an evening they will remember for many years.

Have you made it to a barn dance yet?  Sweep off the floor, grab your dancing shoes, and come to the gathering.  You just might surprise yourself by discovering something you didn’t know you enjoyed.  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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