North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Picking up the Birds and the Bees

There are so many things happening all at once on a farm in springtime—lambs are being born, the rubble of autumn’s garden is being transformed into new green life, chicks are hatching in the incubator or arriving at the post office, and new colonies of bees are being hived up for summer pollination.  The lambs on our farm come from our own ewes, and the chicks hatching in the incubator come from our own hens, but the other additions have to be brought in from elsewhere, and this is where the drama starts.

The first chicks we ordered came from a rare breed hatchery in Iowa, with a minimum shipping quantity of 25 day-old chicks.  Now, it might seem a terrifying proposition to send a tiny little chick through the jostle and jolt of the postal service, but this is possible because of a special feature of poultry biology.  Just before chicks hatch, they absorb the yolk into their abdomen, which gives the chicks enough energy to live for a few days without food and water.  This ability, when raised by a mother hen, allows time for their slightly younger nest mates to hatch out before the oldest ones require nutrients. 

So, box up enough little birds together, with comfy bedding and holes for ventilation, and they can be sent to their new home via USPS.  But wait too many days, and it can be stressful for the little loves.  The Iowa hatchery has the odd policy to ship on Fridays…which meant that it wouldn’t arrive in the Hayward Office until Monday, which is a pretty long ride for chicks.  But once we learned that the parcel of peepers spent the evening at the sorting facility in Spooner, we were able to speak to the manager there to CALL US (no matter what the hour) when the birds arrived and we would drive the hour to pick them up.

Day-old chicks need a warm, cozy environment—about 85 degrees.  When they’re hen-raised, this is under mom’s downy feathers.  But when you’ve received a box of 100 of them through the postal system that means your car needs to be at the ready.  So here we are with chick season, the call comes in at 1:00 in the morning, we’re up, dressed, and ready to go by 1:15.  It takes a good deal of radio and attempts at constant talking to stay awake all the way to Spooner.  Once we reach the sorting station, there’s only a few lights on, and all the doors are locked.  The buzzer has been broken and taped over, so that’s no help.  I pound on the glass door, wave my arms, jump up and down—anything to catch a bit of attention from the folks bustling about as they pass by the doorway to the next room.

I’m sure the guys standing outside the bar across the street must think I’m a nutcase.  But at last, I’m noticed, and the cheeping boxful of fuzzballs is ready for us to take home.  The car is roasting, my feet in my rubber muckboots are wet with sweat, and it’s a long, loooooooong roasting ride home trying desperately to stay awake!

Lately, I’ve been using a hatchery from Beaver Dam, WI, which ships out on a Monday, and I receive the chicks either Tuesday or Wednesday.  This week, the call came at 5:23 in the morning, with a hesitant, “And does an Ann live there as well?”

“Yes, that’s my Mom.”

“Well, we have a package for her…and it’s bees.”

Most post offices are accustomed to baby chicks coming through the mail (though not all of them know to help keep the little ones warm…one year we had a “helpful” person keep the box next to the air conditioner!!!), but there have been other postal adventures that have been less well received.

One spring, we were eager to branch into vermaculture—growing worms to turn food scraps into humus compost.  This could be beneficial for the garden and building top soils.  After considerable online research, we settled on the vigorous redworms instead of local night crawlers and placed an order through a reputable vermaculture site.  We clicked “submit” and waited eagerly for our composting crawlers to arrive.

Just like with the chicks, we received a call upon their arrival, though it was far from cheery spring fever or the “get these bleeping peepers out of here.”  It was something closer to, “Um, did you guys order some worms?  I think you’d better come and get them.”

So we dutifully took the drive into town, climbed the steps, and walked up to the counter.  A petite, sandy-haired lady was holding down the desk, but when we mentioned that we have come to fetch the worms, her eyes grew round and wary.  Without saying a word, she placed the “use next window” marker on her counter and seemed to fade away into the backdrop of boxes, carts, and letters.  After a pregnant and silent pause, another worker came half-snickering out of the back with one of those big, plastic post office crates.  “Here,” he offered.  “Just bring it back cleaned up when you’re done with it.”

Down in the bottom of that crate was our little box of worms, a corner half torn and a few stray wrigglers poking about on the floor.  Apparently, the desk lady had picked up the box and one had waved its little face in the air, which was apparently too much for her.  It became a running joke for years afterwards that one day we’d be ordering alligators through the mail!

But this week, we expanded to shipping bees.  Not by choice, but things do happen.  Traditionally, we’ve ordered packages of bees through our area’s beekeeper’s association, which pools resources to order packages by the trailer load from bee breeders in southern states.  On arrival date, all the beekeepers who ordered new packages descend upon the drop site to take their share home to hive up.  But this year, with the growing national honeybee shortages due to Colony Collapse Disorder, I wasn’t able to source any packages through the group.

So I went searching for another option, which meant joining a different buying group out of Baldwin.  So early one Thursday, intern Jacob and I hit the road at 6:00 in the morning to trek down HWY 63 to pick up a 2-pound package of Italian/Buckfast cross honeybees.  I hadn't been to this honey farm before, and we trekked up and down Baldwin searching for the “Honey” sign. 

Finally, I ducked into a farm implement store to ask directions.  The man at the front desk immediately picked up the phone and wasn’t interested in talking to me between show lawn tractors, as did a manager fellow in the room next door.  The folks at the parts counter faded into the background, and no one else seemed to be around.  Goodness, what did I look like, farmzilla?  Finally, I found a couple of poof-haired ladies in a room marked “bookkeeping,” who offered these bizarre instruction.

“Oh yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about.  As you go through Baldwin, on the right (she extended her left hand) is the Dollar General, and right there on the left (she extended her right hand) is the bee place.”

Feeling a bit more confused, we tried driving through town again.  On the left, we found the Dollar General (yes, it was actually on the left), but to the right was a dairy farm.  About a half mile further (mm-hmmm, just across the street I’m sure…) we finally came to the honey farm on the right, successfully picked up the package of bees and brought them home.

But to my great sorrow, upon opening the package to introduce to the hive, the queen was curled up dead in her cage!  Panic!  A hive is dead without a queen to lay eggs, and no other bee can take her place.  My overwintered hive, upon further scrutiny, had also lost its queen, so I was doubly queenless with no on-farm replacements.  Thankfully, the honey farm made amends by delivering a new, live queen a few days later, but in the heat of the moment, I ordered two Carniolan queens from Ohio via overnight delivery.

Well, if you’ve lived up here long enough, you know that nothing overnights to the Northwoods, no matter how much you pay for shipping.  This meant that, when neither the chicks nor the bees arrived on Tuesday, that Wednesday was going to be quite the day.  This returns us to the 5:23 a.m. phone conversation, with, “It looks like they’re bees.

Oh great, I thought, here we go again.  Those folks at the post office won’t want to talk to me EVER!  “Yes,” I replied calmly, “We can pick that up with the chicks too.”

The sandy-haired lady must have been feeling brave that morning (or was offsetting the insect issue with the cuteness of the chicks), because she brought them both to me at the back door (which does have a working buzzer).  The bees in their express package, though, were duly strapped into a miniature plastic postal crate.  I didn’t say anything, but I’m assuming that I’m also supposed to bring that one back, cleaned, when I’m done with it.  At least the bees were kept safe in their queen cages, ready to meet their new hives.

We cranked up the heat and trekked back to the farm with our box of chicks and our strapped-in package of queens.  “Looks like we just picked up the Birds and the Bees this morning,” we joked on the way home.  “No alligators yet, but we’re getting closer.”  Amidst all the cheep-cheep and the buzz-buzz on that warm morning drive, we also couldn’t help but feel like spring was truly here.  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


They're Alive!

Sometimes farming can throw you little surprises to brighten a day of drudgery tasks.  With the latest thaw, the paths and lanes have been reduced to slush, the grainy snow sliding in rumbling, crumbling sheets off metal roofs (just after you walked by), and the coops are turned to boggy sogginess.  The start of mud season has begun.

After chores were finished, Mom and I tackled the ever-so-lovely task of cleaning out the turkey coop amidst cabin-fever turkey hens and toms.  Since they would be under our watchful supervision, I let the turks out into their snow-laden pen (with its mesh still buried underneath somewhere), and they climbed and clamored like eager school children at recess. 

Scoop the buckets full, load them on the sled, and slop-slop our way to the dump pile for spring spreading.  Then it’s drag them back again and scoop some more.  The sun is shining, and it’s really quite warm out.  We’ve both shed our coats and hats, and a light breeze teases our frizzing hair.

“Ach,” Mom cries, waving her hand by her head as we dump another load of filled buckets onto the pile.  “A fly!  Not a fly already!”

But it was a little bit later as we were back working at the turkey coop, I noticed, “Mom, that’s not a fly.  I think you heard a honey bee, and it’s still in your hair!”

We tease the little, furry creature from her salt-and-pepper tangle, and it crawls about on my finger.  A honeybee!  With all these endless and long spells of twenty-below temperatures, I had written off the colony as frozen solid.  Having kept bees on the farm since 2003, only mild winters had seen colony survival, despite insulating the hive and other precautions.

This last fall, though, our one surviving colony (we lost the second one early in the season due to a bummer queen), had entered the winter strong, full of honey and as much concentrated sugar water as the bees would take as extra feed.  With one deep hive body and two shallows, they had plenty of room to pack it in—and barely enough room to fit all the bees. 

On top of the hive, we place a moisture-reducing system made by Smarter Bee that is built into a shallow hive body.  With a cloth and screen barrier between the hive and the moisture reducer (so the bees are kept safely below), a convex piece of thin metal sheeting acts to collect moisture from the hive that rises through the cloth barrier.  The drips condense in small troughs on each side and then exit the hive through poly tubing.  Holding too much moisture in a hive can lead to an array of diseases and chilling as the water drips back onto the bees, but the moisture reducer helps to alleviate these problems all winter.

We then wrapped the whole kit in pink house insulation, like a big marshmallow, then wrapped that in tar paper (as a wind and moisture barrier as well as the blackness helps capture solar warmth) like a pudgy Christmas package with a notch cut out at the hive entrance.  We wished the bees well, then watched the snow pile high on top and around the back sides.  The sunny days this winter helped keep the south and eastern sides free of snow and the entrance open.

Usually, I make a habit of traipsing out to the hive nearly every week during the winter.  But with all the cold (meaning I didn’t want to have to stay out any longer than necessary due to threat of frost bite) and the deep snow (out there I really would have sunk out of sight), it just didn’t happen.  But when that one little honey bee flew into Mom’s hair, we both knew we had to get out to the hive and see what was happening.

Another beekeeping friend from town had reported his hive had died of the cold way back in January.  I certainly hadn’t any expectations that my one lone hive in the snowbank was going to pull through.  But as we waded through the hip-deep mashed-potato snow to the apiary, our thoughts bounced from hope to dread.  There is no fun and glory in cleaning out a dead hive in the spring, crusted with shattered bee parts and white furry mold growing in the corners.

The bottom entrance had crusted over, and as I worked it free with a twig, there was no activity.  And yet, a few more bees were hovering about.  Where were they coming from?  We scooped away the snow from the top of the hive, pried off the frozen bricks and lid, and then began unwrapping the package.  Beneath the tar paper were all kinds of bees, searching for a way out.  Lifting off the insulation, we found that the snowload had shifted the moisture reducer towards the back just enough for the bees to chew a hole in the front corner of the fabric barrier and climb out the top of the hive.  As we unearthed their home, delighted bees were buzzing everywhere, taking wing after a protracted and cramped winter.

They’re alive!  I couldn’t believe it, just couldn’t.  But if the colony was still alive, they were likely very short on food supplies.  Our last honey harvest in the fall right before preparing the bees for winter had come at a crazy busy time on the farm.  The tub with the honey-laden frames just kept getting shifted from this part of the farm to that, hoping for a moment to extract the liquid gold within.  But that time never materialized.

Now, with bees in need of food, we raced to find that bin, which was exactly enough to fill a super body.  It was also likely that the bees had packed away pollen in the corners of the frames, which is an important part of “bee bread” that is fed to the developing larva.  As we approach the equinox, the queen in the hive will be ramping up her egg laying to build a strong workforce for the first nectar flows.

Of course, you can buy “pollen patties” that are a pollen-colored substitute, and you can also purchase in-hive bee feeders for corn syrup or sugar water, but saving work that the bees had put away of their real and natural foods is by far the best.  And those bees could smell us coming with their honey—offering us a personal, hovering escort.

I took a quick check through the top hive body, and each frame was loaded with bees.  The queen, however, must have been hiding below, but I was concerned about chilling the hive with too much poking and prodding.  On the next really warm day, I will come back for a “peek-a-boo.”  For now, I’m satisfied just knowing that the hive is alive and stocked up with good food.  Hurray for those hearty little bees!  Hopefully, we can make it through to spring.  With all the trails of diseases, mites, and colony collapse that honeybees have been facing, it’s heartening to know that these special creatures on our farm shoulder forward with resilience yet.  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


In Praise of Pollinators

The hot days of summer beg of a crisp, cold slice of crimson watermelon—the sugary juices seeping between your fingers and running down your chin.  But this refreshing delight would not be possible without a good bit of help from some of our insect friends.  Now, I know that there are plenty of pesky bugs bothering us this summer, from the whining mosquitoes that lay in wait at the edge of the field to the stinging wasps that attack during the family picnic.  Still, there are many insects whom, without, we would literally be unable to survive.

In order to grow that delectable watermelon, the male and female flowers of the parent plant needed several visits (approximately one visit per seed) from a pollinating insect in order to form a fruit.  Insufficient pollination results in stunted, misshapen fruits…or no fruit at all.  In fact, one third of all the foods we eat require insect pollination.  Wild pollinators, including bumble bees, butterflies, blue orchard bees, hummingbirds, and many more, serve as excellent carriers of pollen as they search for the sweet nectar inside the flowers.  But the workhorses of agricultural pollinators are honeybees.

I learned the art and science of beekeeping from an elderly gentleman I met at the Cable Farmer’s Market.  We have shared adjacent vending positions for the last 12 years.  Now nearly ninety, Mr. Rowe works his hives with his children and grandchildren—spinning honey and stories of dismay at finding that his mother had given away his original few hives while he was serving in WWII.  Now, he has traveled the world to attend special conventions for beekeepers and helped start a regional program to mentor new upstarts in the occupation.  This same program was how I began my journey keeping bees, about 10 years ago.

It takes a unique soul to embrace the care and keeping of stinging insects.  Beautiful, intricate, and socially complex insects, yes…but stinging nonetheless.  The sweet and tangy homestead honey harvested each fall serves as compensation for any summer pricks in defense of the hive, but the real payback comes in the garden.  On our farm, the honeybees serve as the pollination task force, nearly doubling our harvest of insect-pollinated crops in the first year we kept bees.  These include strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, summer and winter squashes, peppers, eggplants, green beans, peas, and even the tomatoes growing in our high tunnels (hoop house greenhouses).

Honeybees visit flowers to collect both nectar and pollen.  These two are mixed together by nurse bees to make what is commonly known as “bee bread”—an essential food for the growing larvae in the hive.  In the process of collecting these foods in the field, the worker bees stuff pollen onto the sides of their back legs until a fully loaded bee looks like she is wearing bright orange cargo pants.  During the dandelion bloom, the whole entrance of the hive will become stained a light yellow from all the pollen-laden bodies busily passing back and forth.  Flowers make extra pollen, hoping for just such a fuzzy bee visit, in which some of the pollen powder from one flower will be rubbed off onto the next.  This essential process of crop fertilization allows us to enjoy the rich bounty of fruits and vegetables that grace our tables each year.

But you need not become a beekeeper to lend a helping hand to native and honeybee pollinators.  Perhaps the best thing anyone can do is to stop spraying pesticides or herbicides that are harmful to bees.  This includes the spraying of lawns and flowers, as well as gardens and crops.  There are plenty of organic and bee-safe options available on the market today, including neem oil and insecticidal soaps, both of which are harmless to bees.  Planting flowers is another excellent option, especially native wildflowers like bee balm, columbines, and white Dutch clover.  Planting such a pollinator-friendly flower garden near your vegetable garden can encourage natural pollinators to discover your crops and lend a helping hand—well, wing.

This week, as you take time to discover and observe wild and honeybee pollinators in your area, try taking a sip from this delicious summer recipe I collected while serving as the 2006 Wisconsin Honey Queen.

Creamy Tropical Smoothie

1 cup orange juice

2 cups pineapple chunks, drained

1 banana, coarsely chopped

¼ cup milk

2 Tbs. local honey

4 ice cubes

Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth and creamy.  Serve immediately or chilled. 

With your sweet and fruity drink in hand, let us toast the efforts of all those busy pollinators this summer.  You call already start to see the fruits of their labor, and we hope to see you down at the farm sometime.  We just might have some honeycomb fresh out of the beehives.

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

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