Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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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
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
“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
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 08:26 AM CDT
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
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
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
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
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
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 10:44 AM CDT
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
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.
3 unwaxed lemons
1/3 cup sugar (or ¼ cup honey)
2 ½ cups water
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
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.
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 02:16 PM CDT
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