North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Greenhouse Day

If you’ve ever visited Farmstead Creamery, you probably noticed the long, white plastic-film greenhouse lightly humming away next door.  Some folks don’t, asking, “what greenhouse?” even though it’s bigger than the creamery.  But if you’ve driven down Moose Lake Road on a winter’s evening, you’ve probably seen the golden glow of the grow lights and wondered what on earth those crazy ladies at the farm were up to.

Growing vegetables and tilapia fish, that’s what!  The symbiotic relationship, in tandem with beneficial bacteria that processes the fish waste into nutrients the plants use to grow, is called aquaponics.  The roots of the plants filter the water so that it returns fresh and clean to the fish, and so the cycle begins again.

Our beloved kale salad and mixed greens all come from the aquaponics, which needs tending multiple times a day.  But some days the system needs more of an overhaul, which is what occupied this last Monday (rather than barn muckin’ chicken pluckin’ or hay balin’).  This Monday was a greenhouse day.

First, there was the usual fish feeding and plant watering.  Mom harvested that day’s round of fodder (sprouted grains for supplemental animal feed) while I poked lettuce seeds into growing medium.  In a week or two, the cheery seedlings will be ready to plant in the system, waving their eager green and red-flecked leaves towards the sun.

In our aquaponics systems, there are three main types of growing systems:  two large rafts with floating rigid-foam panels that have holes drilled in them for the plant roots to reach through to the water below; NFT (nutrient film technology) trays like long rain gutters with lids that also have holes for the plants that access a thin ribbon of moving water at the bottom of the tray; and media beds filled with baked clay marbles that offer structural support for plant roots.  Each system works best for different types of plants.  The rafts are great for lettuces but also kale, Swiss chard, and bok choy.  The NFT works best for smaller plants like cut-and-come lettuce, endive, young basil, and brazing greens.  The media beds serve the needs of root crops like carrots, beets, and radishes, as well as offer a stronger footing for longer-term crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers.

Last fall, we expanded the media bed system by adding Dutch buckets (individual square, black pails for growing long-term crops) along the west wall.  A year later, eggplant bushes tower higher than me and tomato vines stretch across the ground.  It was a little tricky to work out the kinks, with the occasional bucket overflow and finessing the draining system.  Surely, there must be enough PVC pipe in the greenhouse to serve at least five homes!

This fall, we are expanding the media bed system again but with flood-and-drain beds.  Instead of a continuous inflow of trickling water with a continuous outflow through a drain pipe back to the sump tank, a flood-and-drain system is watered heavily but periodically and then allowed to drain.  It also allows us to place beds farther away from the water source (sump tank) and in places inaccessible for water return.

In short, any bare floor space that has more room than is needed for walking, washing, or care of plants is up for grabs for additional growing space.  That means yet another phone call to our rep Zack at Farmtek to order supplies.

“Can we use this 100-gallon reservoir as a flood-and-drain grow bed?” Mom asks.  We walk through the concept that involves a slotted PVC pipe at the base to collect excess water and draw it out through a bulkhead fitting to the drain.

“That should work,” Zach consents.  “If the plastic walls bow out too far, you could make a reinforcement structure from wood or metal, but it’s already built to hold the pressure from the water.  Let me know if this works!”

It used to be a huge grumbling scene with the delivery semi-trucks, but now that we’ve expanded the parking lot at Farmstead, turning around is much easier for them.  Still, when that ship ticket comes in, they probably draw straws for whose turn it is to roll down that gravel lane to drop off the next odd item we’ve purchased.  This time, three large white water reservoir tanks, 30 bags of the clay media (which likely weight 40 to 50 pounds each), and a few odds-and-ends fittings was the stack with our name on it.

“You got that greenhouse full yet?  What are you going to do with all those plants?”

“Eat them,” we grinned.  I already had baby cauliflower plants ready to go in, along with kohlrabis.  We lugged in the white tubs, over two feet wide and nearly seven feet long, and hauled in the bags of media.  The day was cloudy and cool, perfect for a long work-day in the greenhouse with heavy lifting.  Keeps you warm!

It took a little troubleshooting to get the white tank-turned-media-bed up on enough rigid foam to drain into a shorter blue bed for growing cut-and-come greens (hopefully including spinach!) before heading to the drain.  This system allows two rounds of plants to pull nutrients from the water before it’s returned to the earth. 

After finishing all the PVC hookups, we piled in the clay media pebbles.  Seven bags each in the big white tanks, a bag and a half each in the smaller blue tubs.  I also had seven Dutch buckets to refurbish, pulling out old pepper or tomato plants, washing up the tubs, sifting out the roots and debris, then refilling the tubs with a mix of old and fresh media, and planting new cherry tomato plants.  In the washing process, I’d pour off the rich, brown water from collected fish nutrient and pour that over the new media beds as an inoculant to give them a jump start.

Between the hauling, the washing, the sorting, the filling, the fitting, and at long last the planting, I smelled of clay dust, was soaked from the knees and elbows down, and had a few fresh scrapes on my knuckles.  But five new beds were ready to start growing great foods all winter—baby greens, zucchinis, cauliflowers, beets, radishes, and more.  It’s one step closer to personal and community food security during the long winter months by increasing the farm’s ability to grow its own. 

In just a few weeks, the brown clay pebbles will be lush with little green leaves—a testament to hard work on a greenhouse Monday.  I’ll bet that first bite will taste sublime!  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 Search of Light

We are seekers of light.  From the ancient days of setting bonfires atop hills in the darkness of winter to the contemporary fashion of LED Christmas lights turning humble homes into nocturnal gingerbread illuminations, the lure of light in dark times has never faded.  Specialists encourage synthetic daylight lamps on our desks to brighten mid-winter moods, while others simply move away during the winter in search of sun and warmth.

A winter exodus is often not an option for farmers, especially those who raise animals, so we must satisfy our need for light through other means.  There’s the good, old-fashioned book by the comforting glow of the wood stove as a place to start or the tradition of leaving all the holiday lighting up until the end of January to prolong the enjoyment.  There is something about the flickering embers of a fire that connects us with the ancestors or the colorful glint of illuminated home decorations that brings back magical memories for this time of year.

While humans are creatures of light by psychological preference, plants depend on light at a much more visceral level.  As the daylight slackened past the equinox, leafy crops in our aquaponic system (a specialized greenhouse where crops grow year-round, powered by nutrient rich water from our tilapia fish) began growing sluggishly, if at all.  It was something of an “I give up!” in the plant world, as most of their outdoor compatriots either succumbed to the cold or retreated to the root level with hopes for a new start in the spring.  In order for our indoor vegetable friends to have a chance, it was time to order grow lights.

We had hoped to be able to take advantage of new LED technology for grow lights, but this alternative was frightfully cost inhibitive compared with traditional models—it takes a massive pack of little lights to emit enough spectrum to stimulate plant growth.  The traditional models waste some energy as heat, but since we would only be using the lights in the wintertime, when the greenhouse required auxiliary heat if the sun was not shining, this could prove a bonus rather than a problem.  To best utilize this new resource, we added a timer and light-sensing system that would only turn on the grow lights when not enough sunlight was present to mimic day lengths similar to equinox levels.

Each light services an eight-by-eight foot region, so calculations showed that we would need 10 lights, which arrived through our trusty delivery driver who must often wonder what sort of odd bit of equipment we have ordered this time!  It was also tricky installing the lights because they had to be hung over the grow beds, which were already full of plants!  But tricky or not, the lights were up and running before Christmas.  The first time all 10 were turned on for inspection, the shine was surprisingly intense. 

“You could start a tanning spa in here,” Dave our electrician laughed.  “Might make more money than with lettuce.”

That first evening was filled with a misty fog, sending the warm, yellowish glow emanating from the greenhouse up into a dome of light above the trees.  Surely, the neighbors must be wondering what form of strange spacecraft has landed at that three-crazy-ladies’ farm.  What on earth are they up to now?

Jon, our contractor, was driving home that night.  As he made his way down Moose Lake Road, he noticed the glowing dome of yellowish light coming from the farm.  “I thought for sure the greenhouse was on fire!” he laughed with us after pulling up to the house to chat.  “I came around the corner in a great hurry and went, oh, well thank goodness.  Looks like Dave got the lights working.”

The plants were the happiest participants of all.  Within days, the Napa cabbages began to double in size, while the lettuces perked up their growth in response to the added day length.  As seekers of light, these leafy greens and fresh herbs rejoiced at the bounty of energy and have been filling our display cooler and many a salad plate since.

Other appreciators of supplemental light in wintertime are the chickens.  While in the summertime we raise chickens for the table as well as for the egg basket, the laying hens are the only chickens that overwinter on our farm.  This perky crew of Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, colored egg-laying Aruacanas, and feather-footed Light Brahmas transition from their summer quarters of mobile pasturing structures to the barnyard broodering coops or greenhouses.  Here, they are protected from the winds and nearby electricity can power heated water buckets.

But the hens, like the lettuce plants, stop producing during the winter months if left to nature’s allotment of sunlight.  Hens would spend more time sleeping and less time making your breakfast.  Chickens, like people, have a structure in their brain called the pineal body, which is stimulated by sunlight.  Take the sunlight away, and we naturally become sleepy.  In pioneer days, when lamp oil or candles were expensive, farmers woke with the sunrise and often retired to bed soon after sunset.

It does not require full spectrum sunlight—as needed by the plants—to fool the pineal body in humans or birds, however.  Simply adding more light can keep us and hens going long into the night…though not enough dark time and rest can leave both of us cranky and dissatisfied.  Adding supplemental light to chicken coops (in tandem with facing coop windows in a southerly bank to catch the most daylight) has long been known to aid winter laying.  Mix this with hearty heavy breed chickens, with plenty of bulk and thick feathering, as well as nutritional boosts like chopped liver, pork suet, kitchen scraps, or smashed pumpkins to replace those long-missed insects and green grass, and the ladies rebound from their autumn molt with vigor.

Tending the hens or the lettuce in the evening also gives me a boost of superficial sunshine, a glimpse of healthy, green growth, and a surrounding of contented, clucking hens.  We seekers of light find ways to make the most of winter, even with a bit of electrical foolery, to keep going through these long nights.  But as we embark into January, we know that the days are beginning to lengthen, if only by a minute or two each day.  Still, there is hope that spring will come again, with sunlight, warmth, and a new season of growth.  Savor those little moments, for each moment is all we ever have.  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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