North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Building Connections

Some folks think that farming is for the asocial, with lots of time alone on the tractor.  It’s a job for folks who like animals better than people or who just want to grow things and not deal with marketing.  But for the small-scale, farm-to-table producer, getting to know the people who intersect your path is an integral part of the process.

It only takes a generation or two to change cultural understanding.  100 years ago, most people were connected with the land in one way or another, whether through agriculture or trade.  Today, agriculture is constantly seeking to teach kids “where food comes from,” lamenting the social disconnect between milk in the grocery store and cows in the pasture, chicken tenders and the feathered bird.

You can pour all the money you want into promotional campaigning or school programming, colorful little pamphlets or TV time, but nothing is the same as actually spending time on a farm with a food producer.  Skip the rhetoric and illustrations and just get to know your farmers.  They have a story of struggle and joy to share, experiences that rebuild our connections with the land.

Building these connections is part of the work every day at Farmstead Creamery.  “Where is the farm from here?”  “What do you ladies raise?” and “How long have you been farming?” are common starter questions folks have about our farm.  Conversations that start with any of these simple questions sometimes stay there and other times delve into the throws of honeybee biology and the plight of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or how Belle the guard donkey protects the sheep in the field.

Each encounter chips away at feeling that food-production has become the other, run by machines and migrant labor.  While this is certainly the case in many places, it’s not the story everywhere.  Sustainably-minded small farms push back against agribusiness’ alienation of food-growing practices.  Here, we still stick seeds in the ground by hand and feed the chickens with a pail of grains you can recognize.  It’s a breath of fresh air, a refuge for folks who see the lack of ethics and care for the individual in the mainstream food system.

The draw to reconnect and learn from growers on the frontline of the sustainable food systems initiative is also why we’ve had students from across the country seek to spend time on the farm.  Earlier this month, Natalie, a Waldorf high school student from Sacramento, California, came for a five-day intensive internship as part of her senior curriculum.  Her brother Elliot had taken our “Sustainable Foodie” class through Northland College and recommended us as a neat experience.

It was early on a sunny Monday morning when Natalie arrived.  As always, we start with a hug and “Have you eaten?”

“Well, I had some fruit and yogurt this morning.”

“Oh no, that won’t get you through chores!” and off we go to make our signature multi-grain pancakes with sausages and strong tea. 

Appropriately fortified, we jump into the day with the final milking of the sheep for the season; checking the survivor beehive and preparing it for moving into the aquaponics greenhouse; harvesting the tomatoes, broccoli, and cucumbers; pulling out the hay wagon before the impending rain and harvesting all the winter squash (including tromping through old pig pens to discover the interesting hybrids they’d planted); moving all the chicken and duck paddocks, with feeding and watering; and finally making chocolate milk and a yummy dinner of pork chops with one of the squashes and some of the broccoli we’d harvested that day.

By 9:30 pm, Natalie was wiped—but that was just 9:30 for us, with more to do!  But she needed time to write in her journal.

“So, my teacher told me not to write about what I did.  I’m supposed to be writing about personal growth.  But I’m going to start with a list of what I did anyway so I don’t forget!  This was an awesome day, and talk about totally amazing food.”

Throughout her time on the farm, Natalie helped make gelato, bake bread, make soup, process sheep’s milk soaps for sale, do chores, make meals, buss tables, work in the aquaponics, help with a Jewish harvest dinner we were hosting, and even run wildly in the snow.  Every day brought in some things that were the same and many that were different, which is part of what keeps all of us going in the cyclical journey of agrarian life.

Now back in Sacramento, Natalie will be presenting her internship (along with the rest of the senior class) to the entire school.  We both took pictures from the adventure, and I recently uploaded mine to Facebook for easy access for Natalie, though you’re welcome to logon and see them too—snapshots of a brief but intensive stay on our diversified homestead farm.  Perhaps someday she’ll be back for a summer internship, building on the connections begun this fall.

But you don’t have to live on the farm to be actively connected.  Some folks connect through farm tours, through volunteering, or through engaged conversation.  By reading this story, you’re engaging with our farm as well, even if you’ve never stepped onto the property.  As much as we may not like to think about it, ignorance is what protects the sins of the mainstream food system.  Building connections with responsible small farmers breaks apart that barrier and empowers all of us to make informed food decisions throughout our lives wherever we go.

Who knows where Natalie will take her new experience or how it will impact her life and the people around her.  So, far from being a place for the asocial, commonplace encounters on our farm are meaningful moments for building connections with the land, stewardship, and the story of those who live it every day.

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


In the Face of Tragedy

If ducks were people, there would be 17 extra obituaries in the paper this week:  Miss Puddle Duck.  Loved water sports, green leafy vegetables, and rainy days.  She will be remembered for her joyous attitude and comic antics.  She is survived by her friends Henny Penny and Madame Turkey.

But ducks are not people, so the story of their tragic demise will be related here instead.

Farming isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always pretty.  Despite the best stewardship or intentions, sometimes unexpected disasters still happen.  A juvenile eagle intimidates the chickens by sitting on top of their tractor (movable pen) and frightens them so badly that the birds pile atop one another and several are smothered.

An innocent lamb pokes its head into a neighboring pen to sniff a cousin.  The protective ewe takes offence and butts the lamb’s head, smashing it against the hard boards.  The lamb convulses and dies of brain trauma.

Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg runs alongside a pickup truck with joy, slips, and gets caught under the tire.  She ends up losing her tail but survives the incident.

Freak accidents can happen on a farm.  They’re terrible, heart-wrenching moments, but they are also a space to learn.  For instance, we now keep solid panels between lambing pens, so that lambs are kept safe from neighboring protective mothers, and we always call our dogs to sit next to us when vehicles approach.  I hope that, someday, I can look back on this week and see it as another time for growth and learning.

The hardest part of farm calamities is that they come without warning.  On this day, it was calm and sunny, and morning chores had progressed without any particular hiccups.  I had even brought a bag of lettuce scraps from our aquaponics greenhouse for the ducks, which they had attacked with vigor.  It is a morning now fraught with what-ifs in my memories.

Wintertime is always a dilemma for poultry housing.  In the summer, there are a variety of mobile pasturing units to keep everyone happy and an assortment of electric fencing to keep everyone safe.  Even though we slim the population down to just our breeding groups, there still is never enough space to go around for the overwintering crew.  Turkeys take over our original chicken coop, hens reside in the brooder coop and a greenhouse, and then there are the ducks…

Let’s be honest; ducks are messy.  In the summertime, when they can be outside and splash in a kiddy pool to their heart’s content and bore muddy holes for slug traps, it’s not so bad.  But in wintertime, these same traits make it very difficult to take care of ducks.  You can’t shelter them in a facility with a cement floor.  They splash so much water taking daily baths (very important for duck health) that the ice builds up and causes trouble not only for the farmer but for the ducks as well.  So they have to live in a shelter with either a dirt or gravel floor so that excess water can drain away through the hay bedding.

For several winters, we have been housing our breeder White Pekin ducks in our red pole-barn, which has a gravel floor.  This is a multi-purpose structure that stores hay and equipment, as well as shelters our rams during the winter months.  By late summer, the south end of the “Red Barn” is full of square hay bales.  As we begin feeding out the bales to the sheep in the fall, enough space is cleared on the east end to make room for the ducks.  It does not take much to keep in a duck, and since this is a temporary space that is expanded as the hay retreats, we have been corralling them by lashing upright wooden pallets together.  The ducks quack raucously with excitement every morning as we lug five-gallon buckets of water to them, drag out their pool and break up last night’s ice, and throw them some fresh hay.  The white birds burrow their bills in the dried grasses, in search of anything especially tasty, and splash wildly in the fresh water.

But last Wednesday night, it was not so pleasant a scene.  We had been held up by a meeting at the Creamery, so evening chores were on a late start.  I was trudging along the shoveled path to the chicken coop, ice-cream pail for collecting eggs in hand, when I saw before me a grayish-white object.  The yard was only dimly lit by the barnyard light, and the lump in my path was the same color as the snow and shadows.  As I approached, cautiously, it stood up.  It was one of my ducks.

“You silly,” I reprimanded her.  “Didn’t you think I brought you enough water this morning?  Why did you escape from your pen?”  I set down the bucket of eggs, scooped up the duck, and headed off towards the Red Barn.  As I continued, I encountered another duck, crouching against a snowbank.  “What, two?” I thought.  “The pen must have come apart.  There could be ducks everywhere.”

Carrying two ducks, I crossed the darkened back yard to the Red Barn, turned on the light, and found that the duck pen had not fallen apart.  It also appeared to be empty…almost empty.  There were two ducks in one corner, but they weren’t moving.  I bent closer and found that one of them was missing its head and the other one was barely breathing, its neck gnawed almost through.

“Help!” I screamed to my mother and sister who were up by the pigs as I ran with the two live ducks I was carrying.  “Help!”  Something had gotten into the barn.  I deposited the two ducks into the chicken coop (the nearest safe structure) and pelted back through the snow, searching for more ducks.  “Here Ducky, Ducky!”  I found another wounded duck huddled beside the fence of the turkey yard by the time the other ladies arrived.

We faced the Red Barn together, first looking for survivors.  It was then that my sister Kara saw the offender—the short-tailed rump of a bobcat scooting out of the barn and into the night from whence it had come.  We worked like a search-and-rescue team, crawling into every corner, pulling out the dead and assessing the wounded.

13 dead on the scene

4 critically wounded

4 minor injuries, with psychological trauma

The only blessing is that we did find all the ducks.  I don’t think I could have slept that night (though I’m not sure I did anyway), wondering if someone was still huddled in a snowbank, shivering, hurt, and scared.  Most of the ducks had been drug beneath the hay baler into an amorphous pile, their necks bloodied and torn.  The bobcat had not eaten a one—simply killed them and stashed them away.  It must have been a terrible, mad frenzy of murder and fear—like Sandy Hook for animals, only the killer had not taken himself out as well.

We have since lost the four critically wounded ducks.  The remainders (despite warm baths in the farmhouse bathtub and aloe-vera juice in their water) are still in shock.  They hardly eat or drink and still will not quack, despite several days of sheltering in a corner of the chicken coop.

In a way, it is our fault—as most farm accidents are, ultimately.  We should have made a better effort to protect the ducks.  We had thought that having them inside a building where any predators would have to pass the rams would be too intimidating.  Apparently, we were wrong.  After being able to examine tracks in the snow with the help of morning daylight, we found that there were bobcat footprints everywhere—likely because it was hunting in the nearby rabbit warren.  The predator might have even pursued a rabbit into the Red Barn, lost it amidst the hay, and then discovered the irresistible clutch of sitting ducks.  The rest led to the sad story I have endeavored to relate.

I wept for my ducks that day, and the days after as they continued to die.  I still don’t know if I will be able to save any of them, but I will keep trying.  And I will remember this lesson and continue to do better for my animals.  Yes, we do butcher some of our ducks for food, but it is a calm, reverent process.  I do not wish terror and pain on any animal, even if I am going to eat it. 

I am also hoping that the future will be without such intense tragedies on the homestead.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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


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