North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Skeeder Dance

Everyone coming into Farmstead Creamery lately has remarked on one thing in particular.  THE MOSQUITOS!!!!  In swarms, in herds, in droves, everywhere!  Some folks say they’ve been here for 35 years and have NEVER seen it this bad before.  The hum is everywhere, waiting for you just outside the door or the screen window.  Swarms attach even in the heat of the day.  And lately, not even the rain keeps them away!

All winter, I’ve been hoping that the endless days of deep snow and frigid cold could be traded for at least some sort of perk this summer—like fewer bugs.  But, apparently, such a winter is no deterrent for these winged little biters.  I should have known, considering Alaska’s reputation for mosquitoes driving moose into headlong plunging insanity, trying to escape.

“I feel like I’ll just start bleeding all over the floor, I’ve gotten to many pin pricks,” one dinner guest offered yesterday.  “They sure are big this year.” 

Yeah…pretty soon I’ll have given so much blood to the annual skeeder drive that I’ll simply dry up and blow away one of these mornings doing chores.  It’s about like what one might imagine during the days of the Oregon Trail and the fabled skeeder cakes.

Country Fresh Skeeder Cakes:

Flour

Water (or milk, if you have it)

Lard and Eggs (if you have them)

A hoe or shovel

A fire, or coals will do even better, if you can wait that long

Place dough onto handy implement in a dollup, hold over fire to cook.  You don’t even have to worry about collecting the skeeders—they naturally do this themselves, landing and sticking to the dough.  Flip once to cook the other side.  Enjoy the free protein.

***

Even as I write this story, one or two are pestering at my ears and elbows, hovering to find the tastiest place to fill their sack-like abdomens.  And yes, I know they’re expecting mothers and everything has a right to live…but please, mosquitoes, pick on someone your own size!  Don’t coat the dog, biting her tender belly, or pester the eyes of my chickens.  Your bites cause lumps and bumps that itch and prickle long after your lifecycle.  Really, ladies, do you want to be the cause of such cruel and unusual punishment?  I think that all your skeeders should learn to be vegan!  Let’s stop the animal (and human) cruelty right now!

My garden lies half-completed.  Not only because the soils are still too cold for planting some crops, but also because those swarms and herds and droves simply drive me insane!  I spritz and spray, swat and buffet, wave my hand about…but to little avail.  There’s those tasty ankles, the gap between the shirt and the pants when I bend over, around my neck, and on my arms.  Mmmm…farm girls taste sooooo good!  Just add a little mustard, and the stringiness doesn’t bother you so much.

But chores, oh chores, you can’t put them off.  You can’t hurry them too much.  And you can’t simply stay inside and hope the chickens fill their own feeders and waterer.  Our supply of miss-match odds-and-ends bug spray was running low, so Kara and our intern Sam ran into town to snag some more—only to find the shelves barren.

“We could have gotten a ‘sensitive skin’ version with aloe,” Sam offered, explaining the wide bank of wiped-clean shelving, even at Walmart.  “But we figured it must not work as well, since that was the only option left.”

So here we are, doing the skeeder dance through chores on bug-spray-fumes (what’s left at the bottom of the spray can), with our heads wrapped in our anti-insect Buff scarves, hoodies tied tight.

You swat a skeeder here

You swat a skeeder there

You swat a skeeder here

Flying next to your ear

 

You do the skeeder teeter

And you turn yourself around

And that’s what summer’s all about!

And somehow those little tiny insects, with their little tiny brains, always know when your hands are occupied.  It might be at the water spigot, dragging a tarp full of fresh bedding into the barn, or transplanting a young broccoli.  So, invariably that chicken-scented water, or the curly bedding shavings, or the mud from the garden ends up on your clothes, in your hair, of across your face as you chase after the little buggers and try to squish them into oblivion.

But the chase continues into the night.  Just when you’ve settled down after a long day’s yard work…it comes as if from afar.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

You hear it waver, slowly coming forward like some dreaded night wanderer.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

Now it’s lightly touching your ear with its legs, tweaking past a strand of hair.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

But when you reach out to catch it…it’s gone.  This can go on for hours!  Sometimes I simply give up and bury under the covers, which is our little Bichon dog Sophie’s modus operandi.  But when the house refuses to cool down below 80 degrees on warm summer nights, this quickly turns into an infernal sauna experience.

At that point, my mind grapples between what’s worse—more itchy, incessant bites, or slowly roasting to death under smothering blankets?  Do these insect actually find some sort of twisted pleasure in torturing us? 

The typical two-week delay to the dragonfly hatch can’t come soon enough!  If someone really wanted to make a good business, they could breed early-hatch dragonflies to sell in packages to homeowners.  Imagine, have a mosquito problem?  No problem, just mail-order these dragonflies, release in your yard, and watch them eat your troubles away!  What if you could even have a pet dragonfly that stayed near your hat and ate every mosquito that came near.  Now, to me, that sounds like a creative proposal to the situation, rather than more spray.

Folks sure are getting desperate, though.  I just received an email from a friend that spraying Listerine could blow the mosquito blues away.  I don’t know if it works or not, but I’m getting pretty desperate and might just give it a try.  For now, I’ll just have to keep up with as many layers of clothing as I can stand and do the skeeder dance.   Ok dragonflies, we’re counting on you, so get to work!  I’ve got the rest of the garden to put in!  See you down (swat) on the (swat) farm (swat) sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

Nature's Catch-Up Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Garden Frenzy

Visitors this time last year would have witnessed a garden with only three rows left to hill and plant.  But this year, with the lingering winter and inclement weather, the garden has all but about three rows to go.  It’s a madness of squeezing a month’s worth of labor into about a week…if we can pull it off.  That’s right, it’s time for garden frenzy.

The early crops are desperate to go in the ground.  Little broccoli wait impatiently in their flats, while peas soak in the bowl.  We did manage to broadfork their beds, turning in compost and lime to amend the soil and stringing up trellises framed by 2x2s and latticed with used bailing twine.  There’s always a creative use for baling twine on a homestead farm!

The onions arrived during the last snow storm—a box full of 30 bundles of 60 little onion plants each.  The lid reads “open and plant immediately.”  The problem was that 18 inches of snow lay on the ground outside!  Then we opened the box to discover that the plants were covered in mold.  There was no way these little members of the lily family were going to hold over until things melted.

We sent pictures to the distributor and asked for advice.  The word was plant them in flats with soil, water, and light, and hopefully they would pull through.  If things didn’t work out, they’d send a partial reshipment.  That night until midnight, we sat on the walkout basement floor, pulling apart the moldy stems and handling them one-by-one.  Less than a week later, they were green, growing, and curling around their fluorescent grow-lights.  We had saved them!  But then, the UPS truck pulled up.

“Oh man!” he cringes, hopping out of the brown sliding door.  “Did you guys have to get more of these?  I couldn’t wait to get them out of my truck.  I’ve got onion breath, and I haven’t even eaten any onions!”

It was another full box of onion plants.  We opened it up…they were all covered in mold too.  We looked at each other, shook our heads, and that night planted 30 bundles of onions until midnight in flats on the floor of our basement.  Garden frenzy?  I think so.  Soon—very soon!—we hope to get them all in the ground and be done with it.  There isn’t likely to be an onion shortage on our farm this year!

Last year, there certainly wasn’t a potato shortage.  We had planted our biggest patch ever, with the understanding that an area restaurant was interested in buying 50 pounds of fresh potatoes each week.  It didn’t work out that way, however, so we passed out potatoes in the CSA program, and we sold potatoes at Farmstead Creamery.  We served potatoes in shepherd’s pie and Cornish pasties, and we ate plenty of potatoes.  But still, despite everything, boxes and boxes of potatoes went into our basement storage.

By now, as you might imagine, they have been starting to grow pale red and green shoots in search of soil.  What to do—we couldn’t use them fast enough!  So this year, we put them all back in the ground for this year’s seed potatoes (along with some more from the store).  We tilled up the patch by the beehive and had at it.

Our intern LeeAra hauled a bucket while we stuffed spades into the soft earth.  “How much of this patch will be planted in potatoes?” she asked, glancing behind her at the wide circle of bare ground.”

“All of it,” I replied matter-of-factly.  After the words left my mouth, I feared the idea might scare even me.

“All of it?”  As it turned out, as we dug and chucked spuds into holes, we barely got them all to fit into the patch—red ones, yellow ones, white ones.  Near the end, we’d toss three tiny ones into the holes, in the hopes that something would take.  It worked last year with a few leftover russets, so these might as well find a use! 

We planted the whole patch that day—something like eight hours of potato digging and 400 pounds of spuds.  Garden frenzy?  Well, Grandpa always says that most things are cured by hard work in the fresh air.  We had just a wee bit of both that day.

One of our former interns and farm groupie Kelli loves to boast that “Those ladies have compost piles bigger than their house!”  And it’s true.  The other day, as we began the labored process of preparing raised beds in the high tunnel for tomato plants, we attacked the pile that had previously been sheep, donkey, and hog bedding with shovels and buckets.  The black humus smells fresh and clean—far from the odiferous, steaming heap we had taken out of the barn.

But sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.  After a good eight trips of hauling compost in buckets, we’re ready to go at this big time.  The bucket brigade could take weeks to cover all of our CSA garden!  It’s time to get out the manure spreader, load up the compost, and do some massive humus distributing.  Forecast warning:  hats with large brims might be a good idea on that day.

Garden frenzy?  It’s that time of year.  So grab a shovel, a hoe, a broadfork, or whatever tool gets you out in the soil planting this week.  We’ve all been waiting so long for spring to arrive this year!  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 www.northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

In Fear of Frost

As the day lengths shorten and the darkness grows, as the sun climbs a little less higher in the skies each day, and as the winds shift northwards with that extra bit of chill, farmers and gardeners shiver in fear of the encroaching phenomenon that marks the bitter ending of the lush summer growing season—frost!

On the farm, we call it the “F”-word.  Chilliness is one thing, as is a damp rainy day, but a frost is nothing to take lightly when tending over three acres of organic-style vegetable production.  Frosts damage produce and kill sensitive plants, leaving a once teaming garden limp, black, and in every respect little more than a bone yard.

Farmers know well the fine line between 33 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cranberry growers install temperature sensors to alert producers of encroaching freezes so that sprinkler systems can manually or automatically douse crops to keep away the damaging chill.  There have been many, many hand-numbing nights, covering by flashlight, when such a system sounded rather appealing!  Or, perhaps, some football stadium out there wouldn’t mind donating their old retractable dome to a farmer?  That way, with one button, I could cover the whole place!  …sounds like wishful thinking.

Well, if an adequate sprinkling system is not available, the next best line of defense against the frost is covering with fabric.  In our early farm days, we consigned sheets, blankets, bedspreads, afghans, towels, and anything else of that likeness we could muster into service.  Fabrics by the boxful would be hauled up from the farmhouse basement and trundled out to the rows of delicate produce, one sheet at a time.  Tedious is a mild way to describe this process. 

But the experience does not end here!  Oh no!  In the morning, once the frostiness melts, each blanket and sheet had to be laid out on clothes lines, on fences, on ropes strung between red pines and majestic maples.  Each piece by morning would be laden—no soaked—with dew (which meant that we became equally soaked) and nearly freezing cold.  Wearing gloves was almost hopeless, since they became so sopping that it was more of a hindrance than a help, so you just pressed on with blue-white hands that ached for hours afterwards.

Back in the days before we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, clients would drive past the garden on the way to pick up their CSA shares or other farm goods, notice all the frost covers draped over every available hanging surface, and ask, “Are you doing laundry today?”

But some advancements in technology are truly worthwhile.  One of these is a product called “Agribon,” which is lightweight, comes in long rolls, and can cover several garden bed widths at a time.  Cut the length of our rows, two people can completely cover 500 square feet in less than a minute—compared to an age of draping sheets and blankets down the length of the row.  Needless to say, we have become supreme fans of Agribon!

But what to do with all these now obsolete sheets and blankets (other than keeping a few around just in case!)?  Well, farmers are not in the habit of letting much of anything go to waste—waste not, want not.  This past year I finally finished restoring a grand-sized rag rug loom.  Weaving rag rugs has been a traditional way of giving old remnants, garments, and other unwanted fabrics a new and useful life.  Aha!  The good old washing machine has had quite a workout grinding through the multitude of colors and textures of former frost covers as I hand cut them into strips and weave them into artful yet functional rugs.

Agribon and rugs aside, there are just some parts of the garden that are too big to cover—places like the squash and pumpkin patch.  On our farm, squashes, pumpkins, sweet corn, and potatoes commonly follow the previous year’s pig pens.  Each season, these areas are uniquely shaped, heavily mulched, and farther from irrigation than our more managed, raised-bed produce areas.  To say that these hog-powered patches grow a little squash would be modest…exceedingly modest.

When this season’s “F”-word becomes unavoidably imminent, we bring out one of our hay wagons and park it by the patch.  Then commences what I have come to call “Easter Egg Hunting for Adults.”  Prickly and spiny stems and vines await, with broad leaves to disguise the precious squashes below—this is a job for gloves, long sleeves, and hearty souls. 

This year, my labors in the squash patch were accompanied by Gary, a vacationer and volunteer who was interested in learning more about our farming enterprise and willing to lend a hand.  We bobbed up and town, filling our arms with blue Confections, orange Hubbards, and green Buttercups.  We laughed at monstrous, warty gourds, hiding acorns, and curly-stemmed pumpkins.  Gary’s Santa Clausian beard brushed the tops of the plants as he reached for the next golden nugget hidden below.  “There’s more in here than I thought!”

“We must be making progress,” I offered cheerfully.  “I’m having to walk farther for each trip.”

We sorted the squashes into piles by type, though the piles soon began to mingle as the hay wagon became so loaded that one group spilled over into the next.  By evening, the patch was picked clean (or as clean as it was going to be at that point), and with the help of some strong volunteer backs, we managed to push the wagonload into a shed just as dark settled in for the night.

Yet despite the cold and the wet and the prickles, the flurry of work that precedes the first hard frost it still worth the effort.  There is something heartbreaking about finally letting the peppers and eggplants succumb to oblivion, or watching the tomatoes turn to translucent balls of mush.  And there is something particularly satisfying about tucking that load of squash into the shed and sneaking in weeks later to pick out a golden Butternut for supper.

Whether the fear of frost has reached your area yet this autumn or not, be warned that it is coming!  Store it away, cover it well, and hope for the best.  And, of course, take a moment to give thanks for the bounty summer has afforded each of us this year.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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


 
 
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