North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

It happens.  No matter how harmoniously you try to farm with nature, some critters have it in for you.  If it’s not ravens running off with baby chickens, it’s the bobcat slaughtering your ducks.  If it’s not the rabbits in the pea patch, it’s the voles climbing the tomato plants to eat three times their body weight every day.  If it’s not the robins gorging in the raspberry patch, it’s the tent caterpillars in your apple tree.

Each year has its own challenges with pesky critters.  One year, the voles may be driving you crazy—running off with your mousetraps, escaping the dog, digging tunnels everywhere, hollowing out your melons and squashes.  The next year, you’ll hardly see a vole but the ground squirrels seem to be everywhere—tunneling under the garage, marauding the chicken feed, and shredding everything related to paper.

And then there’s woodchucks digging caverns under the barn, juvenile Bald Eagles terrorizing the chickens in their tractor pens, or coyotes howling in the night, spooking the newly-weaned lambs.  Goodness, you might even find a snapping turtle caught in the pig pen!

Sometimes, we do our best to live with/around the critters.  We’ve certainly raised a good crop of robins this year with the raspberries because the patch is too sprawled to cover with bird netting anymore.  But sometimes these unwanted guests on the farm call for an all-out-war.  I’m sorry if it doesn’t seem neighborly, but this is not a wildlife farm.  Go live in the woods, be merry, and prosper.  But if you start messing with my farm, watch out!

For years, back when we were mostly just visiting the farm as a getaway, woodchucks lived in the barn.  One particular fat and sassy fellow (or lady, I can’t be sure) perched on an open door in the hay loft, basking in the morning sun, surveying the realm.  Yet, while woodchucks have their own sort of charm (I suppose), their damages to the property outweighed their quaintness. 

While Grandpa took care of the woodchuck population after they collapsed the original hand-dug well in the pump house, restoring the north wing of the barn back to a working dairy shone a new light on the plunder.  Punching through the old stone-infused cement to see that the footings were solid, giant caverns were exposed that had to be filled, lest the whole wing should crack and cave in.  Wouldn’t that be an unpleasant experience in the middle of milking!  A considerable amount of concrete (and funds) went into those holes to make amends from the reign of the farm’s woodchucks.

So, when a teenaged woodchuck decided to move into the red barn early this summer, this was no laughing matter.  We’d been woodchuck-free for at least ten years.  This invader was certainly not welcome!  After finding his hole and watching the little nose pop in and out from under pallets of hay, we made a plan to catch “Charlie” the woodchuck.

Using cement blocks to form a chute outside the hole, we baited a rabbit live trap with peanut butter.  But we were concerned that, since Charlie had more length than a rabbit, he’d be able to get out after triggering the trap.  So we threaded a stick through at the very back and smeared the peanut butter on that.  This was set at the opening of the cement block chute.  And then we left Charlie alone.

“I don’t think we’re going to catch it,” our intern Jake mused.  “I don’t even know if woodchucks like peanut butter.”

But the next morning, when Jake peered around the corner of the barn and called in excitement, “We’ve got him!” it appeared that peanut butter was the right answer.  In fact, Charlie seemed to like it so much that he’d eaten well into the stick as well.  Later, Grandpa took Charlie for a ride out into the forest.

But the latest unwanted guest on the farm was a pigeon.  Over the years, we’ve worked hard to keep the farm pigeon-free, since they are renowned carriers of diseases for livestock.  Pigeons like farms, there’s usually feed to be found somewhere, and barns offer adequate protection from predators.  But take a stroll at any feed mill or in a city, and you can see that there isn’t any threat to the global pigeon population.

Usually, we try scare tactics first, involving rocks, the dog, screaming, and chasing.  Sometimes this is enough to convince the pigeon in question that our farm is no place to stay.  Other times, it isn’t.

About two weeks ago, a white-headed pigeon began appearing on the farm, mostly ranging for spilled chicken feed behind the tractors.  We’d chase after it, but the next day it would be back.  We’d throw sticks and rocks, and still it came back.  Lena would chase it for hours, but the little bugger just wasn’t learning.  It was a pretty thing, for a pigeon, but it was going to have to go.  No thank you fowl cholera, coccidiosis, or avian flu.

So we scrounged up Grandpa’s old 22 and waited for the bird’s imminent return. 

“There he is, on the roof!”  We had just finished picking the black currant bushes by our house when Jake noticed the speckled bird eyeing us from the top of our chalet.  Then came the pursuit, off the roof, out in the field, back to the roof, back to the field, over the barnyard.

It was our intern Sam who caught a wing-shot, and they brought the captive home.  And there came the end of the pigeon’s story, though we did eat its breast in a stir fry for dinner since no one had the heart to waste it.  None of us really wanted to kill the bird if we didn’t have to, but prevention is the first line of defense in maintaining livestock health, which is much more important than entertaining an unwanted guest.

But now chores have returned to normal, with a watchful eye for the marauding creatures that know when you’re not looking.  Hopefully, we’ll keep them at bay for another season.  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


When the Snow Clears

Springtime archaeology is in full swing.  Removed is the white blanket of snow, leaving behind the dog droppings, fallen branches, spilled chicken bedding, and the skeleton of last year’s garden.  Jacob (one of our summer interns this year who is staying with us for a week to see the farm in springtime) arrived just the other day, and we’ve set to work attacking the archeological mess.

First it was the branches—bits and pieces from the old spreading maples in the yard that were already a mature stand in an old farm picture from the 1940’s.  There’s the blown-off dark chocolate twigs from the silver maple by the bird feeder to collect, the barren sticks from “instant habitat” harvested for last year’s escapist pheasants to be thrown from the hen yard, and then there’s the great limbs ripped from the red pine next to the barn from the November ice storm to drag away.

So we’re bending and picking, bobbing like ducks in puddles as we load the back end of the golf cart we call “the Blueberry” and haul them to a pile near the compost bin.  Last year because of hay shortages, we had to buy quite a bit to get the sheep through the hard winter, which means that this spring there won’t be any old hay laying around for mulching.  So what, as organic-style gardeners, are we going to do?

Well, we’ll have to try using something else.  Last year, with so much of our time needed at Farmstead Creamery, there just wasn’t enough hours to get all the weeding done.  We’ll be experimenting with some plastic mulches this year (a reversible black-on-one-side and white-on-the-other to customize for warm or cool-loving crops).  But there’s still all the walkways and more to cover.  How about running these branches through our chipper and making our own mulch?  But the little pile from yard waste wasn’t going to go very far, so it was time to tackle some other spring projects to add to the horde.

Along the lane up to the farmhouse, Grandpa had planted black spruce and a few odds-and-ends pine volunteers to serve as a living wind and snow barrier.  Before, drifts would pile across our private road, making winter excursions to the homestead rather difficult.  These trees have now grown considerably, though several times smaller than the towering maples.

Our first trimming of the roadside pine stand came after a young and exuberant Lena (our sheepdog) chased a wayward rabbit into the thicket and poked her eye!  It did heal, with treatment, but all the branches up to Lena height had to go.  Last summer, I pastured our new flock of ducks beneath the trees, which offered both shade and protection from flying predators.  But the crouch-height branches made for intricate zig-zagging of electric mesh fence to keep from grounding out and face-poking late night duck chases to convince the white feathered beasts to go to bed!

Hence, in our search for chipping material for mulch and in an effort to clear more fence and headspace for shaded duck pasture, Jacob and I broke out the hand saws and went to work at the half-dead lower limbs.  The breeze was brisk from the northwest, encouraging us to stand upwind of our endeavors or risk a faceful of wood shavings—eyes, nose, teeth gritty with bits of bark and pulp.  We drug the severed limbs into the lane, creating a hedge of tree parts.  A chainsaw probably would have speeded the process, but such powerful and dangerous machinery is not my forte.

After clearing the way (and the view into the sheep pasture beyond, which was an added bonus), we piled the branches onto the dump bed of the Blueberry.  Some awkward specimens caught the wind and pulled us around or spread wide so as to make stacking a stable pile quite a feat.  In the end, Jacob walked behind as “spotter” while I drove slowly to our pile, backed up, and we used the release lever on the dump bed to push the whole mess onto the chipping pile.  Nine or ten loads later, we had the project cleared out.

Today, however, was busy as ever at Farmstead Creamery.  With the previous snow dump, various booked events had been postponed…all to the same day.  We also had our first major delivery of aquaponics lettuce to the area hospital and CSA shares to prep and send off for pickup, as well as a meeting with a drinks purveyor.  Jacob was going to be on his own for springtime farmwork for the day as the rest of us held down a DNR fisheries meeting, the lunch crew, and deliveries with our helper Kelli.

So we scoped out the bones of last year’s raised-bed garden.  Armed with empty feed sacks to collected the battered remains for anti-cutworm cups (made from former yogurt, soda, and milk containers from dumpster diving) and a couple styles of rakes for removing old vines and dead weeds, there was plenty of ground to be covered.  Last year, we had spent weeks of time forming wide raised-bed rows (at least two to three times as wide as our previous formations), with in-ground soaker hose still in place. 

This year, instead of tilling the whole project over and pulling out and reburying all that irrigation, we’re trying a top-dressing compost method, covered with the plastic mulch where we can.  In the walkways, we’ll split our paper feed sacks that have been piling up from all winter so that they unfold flat the long way, lay them down in the walkways, and cover them with our chipped mulch.  In the end, our hope is to have a seriously lessened weed load so we can focus on our real passions—growing great local foods—instead of constantly waging war on the things we’d rather not be growing.

But first, we have to make order of the chaos of autumn’s remains.  With eagerness and tenacity, Jacob attacked the garden, filling bags upon bags with cutworm cups and heaping piles of debris onto either far end of the garden to be hauled away.  By lunchtime, half the space was cleared.  And by 5:00 in the afternoon, only the last few rows remained.  We were pretty impressed, Jacob was pretty hungry, and we were all feeling great about the progress made these last few days.

Of course, you still don’t want to see my springtime to-do list, but at least we’re making progress on all those things that need attention when the snow clears.  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


When it Gets Hot

There’s no way around it, this week has been so hot and muggy you could just about cut the air with a knife.  Last night’s rainstorm was a blessed relief, but now the air is heavy and close like the tropics.  All the humans are doing their best to stay inside for the air conditioning and drink plenty of fluids.  But for the farm animals, escaping the heat really isn’t an option.

This is one of the reasons we order our meat chicks early—usually starting in April—so that butchering is pretty well over before August.  These fast-growing birds have extremely low tolerance for hot, muggy weather, especially as they grow to maturity.  Congestive heart failure, belied by purplish combs and wattles, can lead to an early demise.  This is especially heartbreaking after all the time and care than has gone into raising these birds, only to lose them in the last days due to heat stress.

Currently, my portable chicken tractors are filled with teenaged turkeys of varying sizes.  Tarps tied over the top of the tractors offer shade, and the water buckets are kept full.  The turkeys pant with beaks wide open and spread their wings to allow air to flow past their bodies, but the heat is bearable for them.  Shade, plenty of water, and access to a breeze is really the best farmer’s can do in this kind of weather.

I was giving a farm tour earlier this summer (on another hot day) to some folks who came from the cities.  The sheep were hiding from the heat in the barn, lying down to discourage biting insects from eating their legs (so they ate ours instead while we observed the sheep). 

“Why does that one have its mouth open?” one of the ladies with fluffy golden hair and wearing high-heeled sandals asked.  “It doesn’t look good.”

“Well, as you’ve probably noticed, it’s pretty hot out today.  The sheep is panting, like a dog, to help cool off.  Dogs and sheep don’t sweat, so panting is a way to evaporate water and release heat.”  At this point, in my sweat-drenched shirt, I was wishing that panting might work for me as well.  But the lady did not seem convinced that what is suitable behavior for her Golden Retriever might be equally applicable for the domestic ovine.  Perhaps she wanted to invite the whole flock of sheep into her air-conditioned new car?

Interestingly, pigs can’t sweat either—except for the very end of their snout.  That is why it’s important to leave them a waller or large mud puddle in their pen.  The pigs roll and flop or sink into the water so that only the very top of their back, head, and snout sticks out.  They stare at you from this position with their beady dark eyes like half-submerged barnyard alligators.  Sometimes they’ll even put their snout in the murky water and blow bubbles…because they can.

The ducks love water, all the time, but especially on hot days.  They clamor into the kiddie pools and dip and duck, letting beads of water slide down their backs, wagging their tails like a dog and flapping their white wings.  Water flies everywhere amidst raucous quacking and splashing.  Then someone gets spooked and they all climb out in a hurry, only to run back again with renewed glee. 

But even with a pool full of water, ducks are dependent on having shade, so I keep them in amongst the pine trees by the farmhouse or beneath the spreading apples by the garage.  They lounge beneath the trunks, tongues sticking out as they pant, waiting for evening.  The ducks, like most of the animals on the farm, consume very little feed during the hottest part of the day.  They snarf down a bit in the morning, then wait until the coolness of evening for supper.  The rest of the day is consumed with doing anything to keep from overheating.

That’s our goal as well, as farmers, while doing chores and other necessary outdoor activities.  But sometimes you just plain old get stuck butchering chickens, making hay, or harvesting in the heat because it has to be done.  Thank goodness for a cold glass of water and a chilly basement to retreat to at the end of those projects.  The dogs agree—they happily stay there most of the day!

Spells of steamy-hot weather are a blessing and a curse for the garden.  On the one hand, sensitive crops such as lettuce, spinach, or peas have very little tolerance for high heat and humidity.  Those lovely heads of romaine, which you thought were just about ready for picking, suddenly sprout forth tall green spires from their core.  Known as “bolting,” the lettuce is doing its very best to flower and make seed (instead of grace your table for dinner), and the seed stalks can grow as high as me!

On the other hand, there are many garden crops that love—no need—these hot and sticky days.  Zucchinis love it, doubling in size so quickly it seems that you could watch them grow.  Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and winter squashes also thrive in the tropical environment.  Our 150 tomato plants in the high tunnel on the north end of our garden are producing boxes and boxes of red, pink, and yellow heirloom tomatoes.  Every time I turn around, it seems that something needs harvesting again!

Still feel that you are melting from the heat?  Here is a traditional English recipe for lemonade that might help you recover.

Summertime Lemonade

3 unwaxed lemons

1/3 cup sugar (or ¼ cup honey)

2 ½ cups water

Ice cubes

Sprig of fresh mint

Chop the whole lemons and puree in a food processor with the sugar until the mixture becomes a fairly fine pulp.  The processing helps pull the oils from the lemon for enhanced flavor.  Place pulp mixture in a glass jar and stir in the water.  Refrigerate overnight before use.  Serve in a pitcher with ice cubes, steeped with a sprig of fresh mint.  Enjoy!


However it is that you try to keep cool on these hot summer days, remember that the folks out there raising your food are doing their best to keep everything going, despite the heat.  Personally, I’m looking forward to autumn, but it looks like it’s going to be another hot one today.  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

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