North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Reclaiming the Kitchen

February is the time of year when an eager band of Northland College students take the snowy trails down from Ashland to join us for three Sundays of our “Sustainable Foodie:  Making a Meal, Making a Life” wellness class, which features preparing and sharing a meal together each week based on the theme of building healthy food skills. 

For the first class, we experienced “a meal in comparisons,” where after a lengthy farm tour and discussions about the value of local foods systems, we made a side-by-side trial for the accoutrements to a roast turkey dinner (featuring a pastured turkey from our farm).  The students split into two teams, each preparing the same dish using from-the-farm ingredients vs. processed supermarket ingredients. 

An aquaponics lettuce salad with fresh radishes, beet greens, broccoli, and organic carrots sat across the counter from iceberg lettuce with limp cucumber, pale hydroponic tomato, and bleached baby carrots.  From-our-soil potatoes, riced and mashed by hand, were pitted against “Idaho Spuds” from flakes out of a box.  From-scratch apple cranberry sauce from our apples and local cranberries stared down Musselman pale applesauce (which we dressed up with a little cinnamon to make it even remotely tasty), and still-a-little-warm homemade chocolate chip cookies met pre-packaged “chocolate-flavored chip” cookies from the store.

As we sat together and thoughtfully enjoyed the meal in courses, everyone had to take at least some of each team’s potatoes or applesauce or salad or cookies and compare their taste, texture, smell, mouth-feel, and overall appeal side-by-side. So often the pre-processed foods are chemically enhanced with “natural and artificial flavors,” MSG (mono sodium glutamate), and emulsifiers of all sorts to trick our brains into thinking that the food is good or that we like eating it…and that we want more! 

But when you place the pretender next to the real, whole food straight from earth to table, the mask falls away and the metallic aftertaste in the flaked potatoes, the grainy, gritty bitterness of the canned applesauce, the lifeless chlorine smell of the white salad, and the gummy rubberiness of the cookie are both starkly apparent and rather revolting.  How sad, we reflected, that some people consider these things to be good food and never have the chance to taste the succulent pastured turkey, the vibrantly green aquaponics salad, the spicy tang of the applesauce, the creamy fluff of the potatoes, or the soft but crispy ecstasy of the cookie when made from scratch fresh off the farm.

So, there arises the question of how do we break away from these addictive but false processed foods that are so ubiquitous to modern life?  This is not only a dilemma for contemporary college students with busy class schedules and limited cooking equipment and skills but also for families with demanding work schedules and afterschool activity lists that keep everyone on the go.  These are the challenges we tackle in class two.

First, we have to start by reclaiming our kitchens.  Pre-processed foods are advertised to make life easier, take the work out of cooking.  But that also means that we lose control—especially over what we’re eating.  Processed foods are chuck full of preservatives, emulsifiers, additives, colorants (plus even more unpronounceable ingredients to preserve the colorants), fillers, flavorants, texture conditioners, and more.  And while all of these additives have been approved for human consumption “at safe levels,” many are still quite harmful, including triggering cancer development.

One of the exercises we have the students complete in the second class is to bring in a food wrapper from something they ate that week—a wrapper that contains an ingredient list.  As each student reads their granola bar, peanut butter, Hostess Cake, or bag of chips ingredients, I’m whirring away on my laptop Googling any item that stumps us.  What’s soy lecithin, tocopherol, or sodium acid pyrophospate?  Some turn out not so bad (like acacia gum, which comes from the sap of a tree) but others are downright terrifying.

Here’s an example from one student’s wrapper.  TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone), a preservative made from butane, is widely used in the food and cosmetic industry.  According to

The FDA allows amounts of up to 0.02% of the total oils in food to be TBHQ. This may not sound like a lot, but it does tend to make one wonder why there needs to be a limit on the amount if it is apparently a 'harmless additive.' Mind you, anything which derives its origins from butane could hardly be classified as safe, no matter how small the dose.

Consuming high doses (between 1 and 4 grams) of TBHQ can cause nausea, delirium, collapse, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and vomiting. There are also suggestions that it may lead to hyperactivity in children as well as asthma, rhinitis and dermatitis. It may also further aggravate ADHD symptoms and cause restlessness. Long term, high doses of TBHQ in laboratory animals have shown a tendency for them to develop cancerous precursors in their stomachs, as well as cause DNA damage to them. It is also suggested that it may be responsible for affecting estrogen levels in women.”

Ok, takeaway message?  Let’s reclaim our kitchens.  And that’s exactly what we did with our six Northland students this last Sunday.  After crock-potting last week’s turkey, we picked the meat clean and used the delicious broth to make Gypsy soup, chopping and peeling carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers, and onions, as well as including a jar of our own home-canned tomatoes from the garden.  Mixed with cancer-fighting spices like tumeric, the fragrant smell filled the class space.

We dived into making our own bread, churning our own butter, and canning our own jam.  We dried fresh herbs from the greenhouse, cinnamon-sugar dipped apple slices, and turned some of the left-over homemade applesauce into fruit leather, sprinkled with coconut shavings.  We froze extra chopped onion and detopped tomatoes for next week’s lasagna, and we baked and Foley food-milled fresh pumpkins for next week’s pie.  We even made our own miniature batch of gelato from scratch to serve on our from-scratch apple-cranberry fruit crumble!

It was enough food for an army (or at least a very hungry troop of college students), and not only were our labors full of sensory delights—the zesty cinnamon and nutmeg, the sizzling onions and garlic, the tangy kale salad, and the succulent lightly golden butter, but it made everything taste all the more special because of our care and attention to every detail.  And if any of this sounds pretty delectable right now, here’s one of the recipes we used to get you started in the kitchen this week.

English Fruit Crumble

1 1/2 pounds fruit (whatever is in season, apples, cranberries, blueberries, peaches, rhubarb etc.)

Sugar to taste, depending on fruit

1 cup flour (alternative flours are delicious here too!)

1 tsp. mixed spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc., depending on what you think sounds tasty with the fruit)

1 stick (4 oz.) butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 oz. chopped walnuts or almonds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Layer fruit in pie dish and sprinkle with desired amount of sugar.  Cut the butter into the flour and spices, then mix in brown sugar and nuts.  Sprinkle in thick layer over fruit.  Bake 30-40 minutes, until the top if browning and the fruit is bubbly and cooked through.  Serve hot with ice cream or yogurt (especially if it ends up tasting like it could have used a bit more sugar) or cold over oatmeal is fabulous as well.


But how to crack the nut of the busy life issue?  Yes, we all have our days when there just isn’t much time to prepare and enjoy a meal, but there are also many traditional food skills—canning, freezing, drying, etc.—where we can bank food time on slow days to make life as a sustainable foodie easier on the hectic days.  It’s also a great time to gather together for those large “putting up the harvest” tasks.  No TBHQ for me please, I’m heading to the kitchen.  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


An Honest Look at Pricing

It’s that time of year when I find myself eyeball deep in receipts, invoices, cash register slips, and scribbled notes—making sense of the mess of bookkeeping for a complex and diversified farming operation.  Spending hours upon hours with Excel spreadsheets and an accordion file is far down my list of favorite farm tasks.  Heck, I might even take cleaning the chicken coop over this job!

But just like cleaning the chicken coop is making order out of mess, and just as having fresh bedding and sweet-smelling air is important to the health of the chickens, so too is having organized accounting at the end of the year important to the overall health of the farm as a family enterprise. 

Let’s be perfectly honest.  Farming is a hard way to earn a living these days.  I think (I hope) that most folks are aware of this fact.  So few Americans are currently engaged in farming as their main income source (somewhere less than half of a percent of the population) that this is no longer an occupational category in census materials.  Instead, I find myself glumped into the amorphous conglomerate of “self employed.”  How ironic that what was once “a nation of farmers” no longer sees this way of life as a viable constituency.

There are many factors which have led to this situation.  To tell them all would take far more words than this article could hold, but here are a few key points especially worth mentioning and mulling over as we enter into this New Year.

Firstly, as late as the 1920’s and 30’s, Americans, like most Europeans, were accustomed to paying 30% of their expendable income on food.  Much of this food was prepared at home from raw ingredients, which had to be mixed, chopped, baked, boiled, kneaded, cured, and such in the family kitchen.  All this changed with the industrialization of the food system, fueled by technologies developed to feed soldiers during WWII.

Suddenly, there were box mixes and canned soups, powdered potatoes and eggs, and so many other “labor saving devices and options,” which began the onslaught of processed foods that separate the consumer from the original, raw foods produced on farms.  Remember, this was all supposed to make life easier for families.  That was good, right?  Science was going to fix all our problems, feed the world, and drive away the specter of Great Depression hunger and want.

The industrialization process was also fueled by another wartime obsession along these lines—boosting production.  From research-driven hybridization and fertilization programs to Genetically Modified Organisms, the drive to “feed the world” has been used to threaten smaller family farms to “Get Big or Get Out.”  Many got out, leaving behind the agrarian heritage they’d worked so hard to build.

With fewer people farming, agriculture became more mechanized, which meant that even fewer people were needed to keep larger acreage in production (it’s a chase-the-tail process).  Excess production, along with government subsidies, continued through the decades to artificially drive down food prices.  While Europeans continue to expect to pay 30% of their expendable income on food for the family, Americans have grown accustomed to paying 5%.

Maybe you think that’s great.  Many of the people I talk to at Farmer’s Market or at Farmstead think so too.  But who is picking up that 25% remainder of the bill?  Subsidies are part of the answer, which come out in your taxes.  However, it’s the big corporate farms (which are sometimes being run as sideline operations by even bigger companies in order to benefit from tax write-offs) that gain the most from the system.  It doesn’t take long for the whole rigmarole to start sounding like Big Oil.

But farmers pick up most of the tab.  There’s a joke among farmers that goes something like this:  a farmer wins the lottery for a million dollars.  The news crews swarm around his little place, hoping for a word.  One of them stuffs a microphone into the farmer’s face and asks, “So, what do you plan to do with all the money?”  The farmer looks at the reporter as if this were the silliest question he’d ever heard.  “Why, keep farming until it runs out, of course.”

Every agricultural newspaper I read tells of someone having an auction—selling the cows, the machinery, all the bits and pieces that made up their lives as toilers of the land.  Even with one spouse working “off the farm” for extra income and health insurance, they’re still strapped with debt, exhausted, and have just plain given up.  The barn is falling apart, built by great-grandpa’s hands, and there’s no hope of fixing it up.  Perhaps they’ll sell the wood for picture frames to help pay off a loan.  This, my friends, is the legacy of our country’s luxury of 5%.

“But why does local and organic cost so much more?” people ask me over and over again.  If I had a dollar for each time I’ve had to soldier this comment, perhaps I could lower the prices, but the truth is that I don’t receive any subsidies.  I don’t want to be in loads of debt, with a barn falling to pieces and the auctioneer coming because I have to sell it all and lose the farm.  If we want to keep our farmers in our community as dignified individuals who give their lives as stewards of the land and animals in their care, then we have to be honest about how we price our food.

Just in the news today, there is a terrible drought in California.  In order to have enough water for the population’s needs, water meant for irrigating agriculture is being diverted.  A hierarchy of priority has been set, preserving water to maintain the health of tree crops (a long-term investment in almonds, apples, pears, peaches, oranges, cherries, etc.), while the first to have the irrigation pumps turned off will be lettuces.  Already there is talk of rising food prices nation-wide as the biggest produce-growing area of the nation buckles down in the face of raging drought.  Oh how inconvenient for everyone else!  Whatever shall we do!

There are two potential outcomes from this scenario that I hope will transpire.  One is that a greater portion of the population will take the issues of Global Climate Change more seriously because as ecosystems and weather patterns change, this will equally threaten our food supply.  Secondly, as food prices rise nationwide, I hope that people will look around and say, “You know, maybe it makes just as much sense to spend my food dollar locally, rather than just at the supermarket.  That way, I am investing in maintaining and growing a vibrant food network right here where I live, rather than depending on having everything shipped in from someplace else.”

In the end, “you always get what you pay for.”  Taking an honest look at pricing also involves keeping in mind one’s personal influence as a consumer.  Where do you want your food dollar to go?  Do you want it to encourage a convoluted agribusiness system that pushes out the small-scale, sustainably-minded agrarian family?  Or is having these family farms as part of our community and landscape important to you?  If this is the first time you’ve had a chance to work this issue over, I applaud you for reading my thoughts to their current conclusion.  And I hope that we may have a more informed discussion on the price of local and organic when we 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


Fond Food Memories

I remember a special visit when I was about 12 years old to Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum tucked between Madison and Milwaukee.  It was autumn—time for bringing in the harvest, butchering pigs, and putting the gardens to bed.  One historic home was drying strips to pumpkin into leathery, chewy snacks that could be stored all winter.  The folks at the hog butchering site were making pickled pigs feet jelly and head cheese.  Anther home was baking bread in a wood-fired oven.

At the bread-baking site, the warm, yeasty smells mingled with the scent of the fire from the stove.  The interpreter managing the hot iron beast wore a long, prairie-style dress and creamy muffin cap with knitted shawl.  She shared with us the story of the farming family that once lived in the old wooden house during the settlement days and how certain days of the week were for washing, ironing, mending, baking, etc.  This was baking day.

But then she mentioned something special.  “Memories around food are some of our strongest recollections.  You’ll remember what I said for a day, what you saw for a week, but you’ll remember the smells for the rest of your life.”

Humans, compared with dogs and other mammals, are not particularly known for their keen sense of smell.  But there are certainly many arrays of fragrances that can bring our minds to particular memories, events, or places.  This is especially true of food.

For instance—the smell of homemade stuffing.  Throughout the year, our family roasts poultry, but usually we stuff the birds with apple quarters and lemon slices.  Authentic, bread-based stuffing is a treat for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  First, there is the cubing of the bread and drying it in the oven.  Then the sausage must be browned on the stove (all spiced and sizzly).  Then comes the celery and herbs and all the rest stirred up in a big bowl.  Pull up the sleeves, grab it by the handful, and pack that beautiful turkey full to bursting.  The stuffing helps keep the turkey from drying out on the inside while roasting, and the stuffing likewise becomes infused with the essence of the turkey—turning those disparate ingredients into a bowl of steaming deliciousness.  At our holiday table, it’s common to hear, “Please pass the stuffing.”

Making gravy is an art of special talent for my grandmother.  The pan drippings from the turkey are carefully saved (in good farming tradition, nothing is thrown away!) and transferred to the biggest skillet we own.  The warm browns and golds of the steamy liquid are carefully stirred and thickened while the boiled chunks of snowy-white potatoes are pressed through the ricer and whipped into perfection with a little milk, butter, and salt.  A cloudy puff of homegrown mashed potatoes on the Thanksgiving plate with a well made in the center by your spoon (poured full, of course, with the homemade gravy) is another special treat in our home.  Coined by my sister when she was a little girl, “smashed potatoes” is one of those fabled dishes where you better take what you wanted from the bowl the first time around—or it’s likely to be gone!

And then there are the cranberries, of course.  Forget anything out of a can—making your own cranberry relish or chutney on the stove is easy.  Try cranberry and apple variants or cranberry and blueberry twists.  Add some nuts for a bit of a crunch and try using honey instead of sugar.  Cranberries are one of the few fruits actually native to Wisconsin, and this year we’ve managed to source regionally grown Certified Organic cranberries.  (We’re buying several cases, so if you haven’t procured your cranberries yet, we have extra at the shop!)  Cranberry apple pie is a favorite of the family—sweet and tart with that tangy kick, making it a great partner with ice cream or gelato.

But or course, you can’t outshine the pumpkin pie.  Someone once asked us, “how come your food tastes so good?”  Before we could reply to the question, the friend sitting at the table with the inquirer offered, “Well, you start with your own chickens that lay the eggs, then you go out to the garden to harvest the vegetables, and then you have your own pigs…”

Similarly, a good pumpkin pie must start as sugar pie pumpkins from the squash patch.  Lop ‘em in half, scoop out the seeds, place them cut-side down on a foil-liked cake pan with a bit of water and bake them until they are fork tender and the domed skins begin to wrinkle up and brown.  Pull off the skins, run the cooked flesh through a Foley Food Mill, and here is the base for your pumpkin pie.  To this add the necessary eggs, milk, sugar, flour, etc. to make that delicious custard, pour into a homemade pie shell, and bake to perfection.  I love the steamy puff of spiced pumpkinness as you open the oven to test the firmness of the custard with a butter knife.  Whip up some fresh cream once the pie has chilled, and this is the heavenly end to a perfectly delicious and memorable meal with family and friends.

Perhaps these reminiscences of flavors and fragrances have brought back a few food memories for you as well.  And if your mouth is watering for a seasonal treat, here is a recipe you might enjoy giving a whirl.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread

2/3 cup shortening or 1 cup vegetable oil

2 2/3 cup sugar

4 large eggs

2 cups pumpkin puree

2/3 cup water

3 1/3 cups flour

½ tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 ½ cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cream together the shortening or oil and sugar.  Beat in the eggs, pumpkin, and water.  Add the remaining ingredients through vanilla and stir to blend.  Fold in nuts and chocolate chips.  Spoon the batter into two lightly greased 9x5-inch loaf pans.  Bake for one hour or until cake tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool.  You can even drizzle icing or serve with cream cheese, if desired.


This week, take a moment to share a food memory or recipe with someone special.  As we all run around shopping for the ingredients for our Thanksgiving meal, please take the time to choose local and organic.  It’s a special way to say “thank you” to your farmer this season.  Enjoy the smells.  Enjoy the flavors.  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



Sustainable Foodie

[We apologize that the imbedded images in this article did not translate.  Please see our Facebook page for the accompanying images.  Thanks!]

Remember visiting Grandma’s farm as a child, helping feed the chickens, or watching her make an apple pie from scratch?  Remember helping haul firewood for the cook stove or climbing down into the earthen root cellar for potatoes or carrots?  Remember the smell of fresh-pressed garlic or the joy of a roast turkey that was raised right on the farm by Grandpa’s loving hands?  While many of these memories are part of our collective past—often many generations removed—these are experiences contemporary food enthusiasts (today called “foodies”) savor as part of a regenerative interest in bringing the eater closer to the rich experience of food production and preparation. 

As part of what has been called “the foodie generation,” I take a special delight in sharing our farm’s unique story, history, and values with the wide variety of folks who visit us—whether this is through a farm tour, a wholesome and homemade meal at Farmstead Creamery & Café, or most recently through educational courses.

The idea that “Those who can—do and those who can’t—teach” is a far cry from our philosophies at North Star Homestead Farms.  So often, the best learning opportunities happens “in the doing”—or what is otherwise called experiential learning.  Most recently, our farm organized a course titled “Sustainable Foodie:  Making a Meal, Making a Life” through Northland College’s Wellness Program, which seeks to round out the liberal arts experience for their students by fostering meaningful life skills beyond the classroom.

“Sustainable Foodie” focuses especially on building traditional food skills, appreciating the value of local foods and knowing your farmer, and exploring the vocational potential for young folks interested in sustainable food’s many facets.  Conceived as a mix of critical theory and hands-on experience that culminates each session by preparing and sharing a meal together, “Sustainable Foodie” is capped at 10 students.  Held three consecutive Sunday afternoons, it fills the requirements for three of the eight wellness criteria required by the college.  Add that statistic to the idea of making and eating food, and it’s not surprising that enrollment filled within the first 10 minutes.

Last Sunday, the dark blue Northland van pulled into the Farmstead Creamery parking lot, and a unique and creative assortment of students from freshmen through seniors piled out and stepped into the transportive world that is our family’s homestead. 

With an in-depth farm tour, cheese tastings, and discussions on finding your local farmer, the conundrum of food miles, and the value of eating regionally and seasonally, we were off to an exciting and poignant start.  But the hands-on learning aspects focused primarily on comparisons to bring the discussion points to full reality.  Along the way, we snapped some photos to document the process. 

The poster child of comparison projects was making salads.  Splitting the group in half, the first five worked in the kitchen downstairs with my mother and sister, while I led group discussion and cheese tasting in the loft upstairs.  The first salad team approached the prep tables to discover their potential ingredients:  a head of iceberg lettuce; two hard, pink tomatoes; an aging cucumber with a withering issue at one end; and a bag of “baby” carrots.  The long carrot is to show that those little carrots don’t grow that way—they’re cut and rounded to size.

After reading the list of ingredients off the bag of carrots, my sister Kara asked the crew, “Now, why do you think these carrots don’t spoil?”  The students looked at one another, shrugging.  Kara smiled.  “Notice that the carrots are wet.  That’s because they’ve been dipped in a chlorine bath as a sanitizer.  Yum, yum.”

The students opted to use the long carrot and did not even bother to open the bag of baby carrots.

After preparing their salads, one student offered.  “Hmm…looks like a nice, em, restaurant type salad.”  Everyone chuckled knowingly.

The groups switched and the second team came down to the kitchen for the salad project.  All traces of the first salad had been hidden away and a new tray lay ready.  This time, all of the ingredients were harvested that day from our aquaponics greenhouse and included butterhead lettuce, mixed leaf lettuce, elegance micro greens (a mix of baby bok choy, mustard, kale, and Chinese cabbage leaves), broccoli raab, and fresh radishes.

The students marveled at the mix of colors, textures, and flavors, filling a bowl with a medley of purple, red, and dark green.  “Yum!” one student exclaimed.  “Can I eat this now?”

Later that afternoon, we shared how to make homemade applesauce from local apples and created individualized locavore pizzas (being a locavore means that you choose to eat locally).  All the toppings, from the tomato sauce or pesto to the sausage, onions, garlic, and cheese, were grown and prepared here or from area farms.  As we enjoyed our handmade meal together, each group introduced their salad before passing it around.

I encouraged the group to try some of each salad, but the community opinion (despite the best verbal marketing efforts of each salad team) was quite apparent as we cleared the table.  This is what remained of the iceberg salad AFTER supper was finished.  Did anyone even try this?

And this, good friends, is what was left of the aquaponics salad.

Need I say more?  Remember that our individual choices, based on our learning experiences, can make a difference.  This week, I hope all these students are making new and critical choices about their food, which is an important cornerstone in everyone’s wellbeing. 

Feeling hungry for a salad?  We’ve got some!  (And I promise not to serve the pale stuff.)  See you down on the farm sometime.

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



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 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 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.


Introducing Farmstead Creamery & Cafe!

Maybe you have met the ladies—Laura, Kara, and Ann Berlage—at the Cable Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, or as a member in their produce CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or through a friend while enjoying a meal of pasture-raised chicken, turkey, pork, or lamb from North Star Homestead Farms.  Either way, you may also have heard some of the buzz that surrounds these ladies’ latest enterprise—Farmstead Creamery & Café.

This century-old homestead (nestled in the ChequamegonNational Forest just off Moose Lake Road) is stepping forward as a regional leader in the growing movement for local, sustainable, and bio-secure foods.  As increasing national food scares and documentaries such as Food Inc. bring to our attention the desperate nature of industrial food production, farms like North Star Homestead Farms have been pushing back and offering wholesome alternatives that bring a story and a face to your food.  Now, having access to their and other slow-food movement products will be even more convenient and enjoyable.

2011 has been anything but a quiet season at the homestead, with hammers and saws from Jon Sorensen’s Venison Creek Construction bringing a long-researched dream to life.  Farmstead Creamery and Café’s design is inspired by the farm’s picturesque 1919 barn, with a “hay loft” upstairs and stunning barn quilt over the entryway.  “We created this design to be versatile and accommodate all the different aspects that were part of our goal,” says Laura, a recent graduate of Goddard College’s Masters of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts program.  “Farmstead Creamery and Café is very much about creating space for possibilities—merging agrarianism, community, and the arts.”

This is reflected in the project’s mission statement, which asserts:  Farmstead Creamery & Café, as an extension of North Star Homestead Farms, is dedicated to building community through local, sustainable, and bio-secure foods that bring out the best of rural living.  Mindful of our unique and precious environment, our hand-made-from-scratch ethic strives for egalitarian access to wholesome foods directly from their place of production.  Maintaining transparency, offering educational opportunities, and nurturing community are cornerstones in our effort to reinvigorate the culture in agriculture.

Driving down Fullington Road (named after the founding homestead family), some are surprised to discover the gem of a farm just around its natural bend.  Now, the inviting barn-like Café, bordered by a split rail fence and topped with a rooster weather vane, serves as the face of the farm—becoming a one-stop shop for everything from fresh produce and meats to home-style bakery goods, jams, eggs, and dairy products.  You can even stay a while and enjoy some coffee or tea, soups, sandwiches, or gourmet salads.  Alongside the Café stands a large greenhouse, which will hold a new aquaponics unit.  This very scientific and bio-secure method of organically raising fish and produce year-round (designed by Nelson and Pade Inc., a Wisconsin company) will greatly augment North Star Homestead’s ability to serve the community long after the summer growing season.  “It’s a natural relationship,” says Ann, a family physician and longtime supporter of her daughters’ initiatives, “In which the waste from the tilapia provides nutrients for the plants.  The plants then clean the water, which is recirculated to the fish, like a highly-managed pond.”

Inside Farmstead Creamery & Café, however, there are more pleasant surprises to discover.  Not only does the “hay loft” provide space for more seating and a view overlooking the homestead, but it can also be used for classes and workshops.  A small stage on the main floor can be used for live concerts, storytelling or poetry events, or even presentations on important related issues.  “Our goal is to reconnect people with what really matters—and a big part of that is building a healthy relationship with our food and really knowing its story, who grew it, and under what conditions.  It’s about reclaiming our connections with the land,” Laura smiles as she calls attention to the interior of the Café, with its large timbers and vaulted ceiling.

Behind where the bakery case and counters will be is a window into another room, which holds a special place for Kara, who has a BA in Environmental Studies with an Emphasis in Sustainable Agriculture.  This will be the Creamery & Café’s dairy plant for the production of gelato—an Italian form of ice cream with less fat and more flavor.  Kara has been working for years to improve the genetics of her flock of sheep (so she not only has excellent lamb production but also quality dairy traits) while studying the science and art of making gelato.  “Just this fall, I went to a course from the Gelato and Pastry Institute of America in New York,” she explains while indicating the future placement of her dairy plant equipment.  “There I studied with a master gelato artist from Italy and created my own recipe using sheep’s milk, which naturally has the right butterfat content for the production of gelato.”  Farmstead Creamery & Café also hopes to carry other locally produced dairy products to augment the shop’s selections.

The ladies of North Star Homestead Farms put considerable thought into the location for the Creamery & Café, ultimately deciding that staying close to the farm was an important aspect of the project’s purpose.  “We see ourselves not only as producers but also as a hub in the greater local food network,” Laura explains.  “But it’s more than food; it’s also about education.  Many people are now several generations removed from their farming heritage, and it’s important to revitalize that connection.  Farmstead Creamery & Café offers something new for the area—it’s a place where that heritage is brought into the present through wholesome products, meaningful education, and dedication to supporting the health of our rural community.” 

Farmstead Creamery & Café is still under construction but plans to open sometime early in 2012, with a grand opening during the glory of the summer growing season.

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