North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Cattle on the Homestead

In a way, it’s inevitable.  When someone learns that I live and work on a farm, the first question is, “So, how many cows do you have?”  Or, “You guys have horses?”  These domestic animals have been an integral part of family farms for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and for many it is hard to imagine a barn without cows or a pasture without horses.  Ours is a homestead with antique structures, run by small women in a situation and environment that is best suited for livestock the size of sheep, pigs, and poultry.  Back in the 1920’s, the farm did have a herd of Jersey cows, but judging by the distance between the historic stanchions and the gutter in the floor, those animals would have been about the size of a modern Dexter cow in comparison with the contemporary Jersey breed.

Yet the inseparability of farms and cattle is clear to many agrarians who tend the land and their animals today.  In Wisconsin, the most common association is with milking stock, but just as vital is the care and raising of beef cattle.  Tweed and Melanie Shuman of Shuman Cattle Company, who live just outside Hayward, Wisconsin, are the present caretakers of the family farm Tweed’s grandfather purchased in 1956.  For the Shumans, horses and cattle are their passion.

“I might be an RN during the day,” Tweed related with a knowing smile and twinkle in his dark eyes, “But really, I’m a cowboy at heart.” 

The family (which just recently bore its first member of the fifth generation of farmers) works closely with their four quarter horses and English Shepherd working dog Zoe to move and maintain the 150-head Red Angus cattle herd.  The Shumans take pride in the high quality of their genetic line, and their bulls are prized by breeders across the nation.

“So often,” Tweed frowns a moment, balancing words, “Everyone wants the black ones.  But really, the red calves are much rarer, and once you take the hide off, it’s the same animal underneath.”

“And in the black strains, you can hide other genetics, like Holstein,” Melanie adds.  “You can’t do that with the red line.  It’s a much truer strain.”

Angus cattle were first developed from a variety of short and stocky breeds living in Northeastern Scotland, along with strains introduced by the Viking invasions of the Early Middle Ages.  By the 1700’s, selective breeding methods in Scotland began producing hearty, well muscled, poled (hornless) cattle in black and brown (known as “red”) coloration.  Hugh Watson, of Keillor Scotland, is considered the father of the modern Aberdeen Angus breed, beginning in 1808 when his father bequeathed his best cows and a bull to help his son set up in farming.  By the 1880’s, members of this Angus line had cross the Atlantic to call America home.

While black is a predominating color in Angus cattle, the red color is a recessive gene.  Breed reds to reds, and the color stays true.  These beautiful animals stand nobly in the field, their coats shining, their ears and tails twitching alertly.  They sail as rusty-colored ships through the tall grass of the pasture or rest contentedly beneath the tall pines on the edge of the fields.

“Transitioning to all grass-based practices has been a priority for us for the past couple of years.”  Tweed smiles as he thinks on his prized herd waiting for the spring grass to grow again.  “Grain prices are getting very tough, and we want to do what’s right for the land and the animals.  We’re also growing more conscious of our environmental impact, and we want this farm to be here for our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  It’s all about doing the right thing, being stewards of the land, and being able to live the lifestyle that we care about and passing that onto the next generation.”

“I’d love to someday have a bed and breakfast at the farm,” Melanie muses.  “Of course, that’s my project, but it would be great to give people an experience of what it’s like on a farm.  So many people today are disconnected from their food source.  They don’t know where it came from or who raised it—how it was raised.  All that is important.”

The Shumans have attended many of the same conferences as my sister (the sheep expert in the family), learning more about new methods in rotational grazing to optimize the relationship between livestock and the landscape.  Changing long-running methods on a farm is never easy, but the Shumans have made a special effort to transition their livestock to grass-fed, pastured lifestyles, and already they can see a difference.

Just this week, the Shumans brought in the first coolers full of cuts of meat from a young grass-fed steers for us to retail at Farmstead Creamery & Café.  Their pride in a job well accomplished with livestock that is so close to their souls shone as they taught us the use and style of each cut and talked prices.

“We’re not in this to get rich,” Tweed nods, his well-loved cowboy hat tipping as well.  “That’s not why people go into farming.  We care about raising good, healthy animals, without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and offering people good, wholesome products they can trust.”

There is something truly magical about the interrelationship of humans and animals, working animals (horses and working dogs) and stock, and of herdsmen and women with their watchful eyes doing their best for the land and their livestock.  This is where I want my food to come from—not from a feedlot where soon it will be illegal to document the conditions with photographs or video; not from a confinement feeding operation where the animals never get to run through the field or sniff at a fresh spring wind; not from the floor of a plant where conditions are so horrid that worker are losing parts of their own bodies to wayward knives and unprotected machinery.

I want my food to be raised on the family farm, like Tweed and Melanie’s or my own, where the pigs get to root in the earth and the cattle roam contentedly in the field.  Don’t tell me that some recent study found that the vitamins in organic lettuce are the same as commercially produced, non-organic specimens.  The vitamins are only a tiny piece of the holistic picture of growing and raising food.  Instead, ask this:  who are the farmers, and what are their lives like?; what is the health of the land that supported this food, and how well is it being cared for?; how sustainable is the system that raised this food, and how far did it have to travel to reach my table? 

In the face of self-protecting agribusiness statistics, questions like these help us re-ground in what really matters when it comes to our food.  It is about knowing your farmer, learning their story, and reclaiming your freedom of choice.  The efforts of small-scale, family farmers like the Shumans and their beautiful Red Angus herd are part of what really matters—keeping the cattle on the homestead, with care, compassion, and sustainably minded stewardship.  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

 
 

First Snow

There is something magical about the first snow of winter.  The grays and browns of November disappear beneath a blanket of clean, white, freshness.  The late autumn rains have been transformed into tiny, lacy crystals that fall in soft heaps about the farmhouse, catching on tree limbs and rooftops as they make their lazy dance from the clouded skies.  The earth looks refreshed, the nights are brightened by the added gleam, and the morning’s frosty crystals clinging to every surface sparkle like precious stones.

The first snows are welcomed on the farm, covering fall’s muddy season and insulating perennial crops.  The snow also helps to hold down exposed topsoil against fierce wintry winds.  I can remember one Christmas years back when there was very little snow.  A farmer down the road had plowed his fields late in autumn, and the land lay bereft of any cover.  Blown by strong winds, some of that topsoil spread over our own fields and yard.  The incident is still known in our family as “The Brown Christmas.”

This year, the Thanksgiving snow pounced upon us.  We were out in the farmyard all day, cleaning barns, sorting sheep, and mulching asparagus beds.  The warm weather was prime opportunity to squeeze in as many of the last-minute autumn projects as possible before winter settled in.  But come evening, the winds changed directions and began to blow cold, bringing first sleet and then snow.

However, there was one project we hadn’t been able to finish that day.  While the chickens and turkeys had been moved into winter quarters earlier, the ducks were still in their mobile unit on the edge of the field.  By morning, they were fairly snowed in, and we trudged out to rescue them, bundled up in Carharts, scarves, and insulated gloves.  The white Pekin ducks were huddled, snug in a blanket of downy feathers and quite unappreciative of our heroic efforts in the biting wind and driving snow.  As they quacked and wriggled, we tucked a duck under each arm and trudged off to the barn, where a safe pen full of fluffy hay awaited them, corralled by wooden pallets.  As soon as the first two ducks were released into the pen, they immediately stuck their long necks through the pallets, hoping to return to their friends in the snow.  But they needn’t have fussed because those ducky friends were coming soon, one armload at a time, until all were secure and warm in their new winter home.

After this parade of quacking, we hurried back to open the Creamery in time for the morning’s first clients.  Still a little out of breath and scrambling to ready the coffee, I apologized for not being as ready as usual.

“Were you out playing in the snow?” the client asked, chuckling.

“No, well, actually I was carrying ducks.”

The story then unfolded with much mirth at the thought of ungrateful ducks amidst a snowdrift being rescued by hearty farmers.

Snowdrifts often carry their own stories.  At least on our farm, they seem to appear in more or less the same places each year—right in front of the garage doors or along the road by the north field, for example.  While this can become irksome for the shovel-wielding adult, such piles of snow are play havens for children—especially when they are enhanced by the efforts of the snow plow.

I was eleven, and Kara was eight, when our family spent a year in Arizona.  Down in the Phoenix valley, there was hardly any sense of autumn, and Christmas lights on the saguaro cactus just did not compared with winters in the North.  So when we took the long trek back to the farm for the holidays, the snow seemed piled even higher than usual. Perhaps it was, or perhaps our imaginations embroidered our perceptions.  Either way, those great piles of snow were irresistible!

Mother had always warned us to be careful when digging tunnels into the snow-banks.  There was no digging at all, of course, when the snow plow was at work.  And there were precautions against chipping too far into the walls, making them thin and causing the top to collapse and bury us alive!  But while it mitigated our efforts, such advice did not deter the eagerness with which we attacked those snow piles with large spoons or small shovels, hacking and chipping, pushing the remnants out and away from the hole until our suits and mittens were sopping wet.

Such hard work calls for a good mug of cocoa and time to sit by the warm wood fire on the fieldstone hearth.  Beyond the expansive snow forts, there were snow angels to make if it was soft and powdery, or we could trounce big words one letter at a time into the snow, hoping they could be seen by the small aircraft that sometimes flew overhead.  But if the snow was soft and sticky, the yard would soon be adorned with slithery snow dragons, imposing snow lions, or handsome snowmen with their accompanying snow dogs.  And, of course, there was sledding!

As one grows older, sometimes the snow can become wearisome.  An incident still fresh in my mind occurred last winter, when we were building the aquaponics greenhouse.  The great metal rafters reached high into the sky, and we had recently finished the polycarbonate side walls and end panels.  We were hoping to have the double-plastic roof in place, but winds had delayed that project, when it snowed.  It was more than a little snow, wet, and heavy.  After five hours straight of shoveling out the inside of the greenhouse, we were ready for that roof to go up!

But when the first snows of November come, I am always touched by the magical beauty and transformative nature of this crystallized water.  There is a certain hush when it snows those large, lacy flakes.  Looking out the window is like looking out from the inside of those shakable balls full of white flakes.  The sun peaks from behind the clouds, and all is turned to shimmering patterns of light.  All this has a way of bringing out the wonder of the inner child, the little voice inside that still has the urge to write big words in the snow or plop down and leave an angel in the whiteness.

Maybe that inner child will find you in these early snows this week.  Drive safely, laugh often, and fix a steaming cup of cocoa by the fireside.  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

 

They Came from the East

On camels, bearing gifts?  Well, this is true in the first Christmas story, but for life on the homestead in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the wintry gifts from the east are usually in the form of snow—in copious amounts.  Being able to read the weather through observation has been an important skill for farmers throughout the ages at any time of the year.

In the summer, our eyes watch the clouds to the west as they climb over the towering red pines behind the barn.  Puffy cumulus clouds (what Grandma calls “God’s sheep”) ho-hum by, hoping for enough warmth and moisture to grow into something grander.  The towering cumulonimbus, with its gargantuan anvil shape and lightening-illuminated bulges are the culprits of summertime scurrying to cover and bring the animals into the farm for safety.  I have spent my fare share of being outside in the worst of storms to save turkeys from drowning or greenhouse doors from being blown off their hinges.

But in wintertime, the storms come more subtly.  There might be little forewarning by a leading edge of high, wispy cirrus clouds (wintry skies are often filled with them, without too much meaning regarding storms), or the preceding flock of little cumulus collections.  There is no visible tower of nimbus-ness to warn of impending snow, and no rush of sudden wind from the west.  A light dusting or minor snowfall may be blown from this direction, but the real worry lies in the storms that that blow from the east.

Winter is full of mystery.  Sometimes, in the midst of chores on a cloudless, sunny morning, I’ll look up to see lacy, glittering flakes dancing down from nothing—literally “thin air.”  At other times, moisture-laden clouds will hover for days, dropping nothing.  My Uncle Jon, who is a naturalist, always says that he can tell the wintry weather by the size of the snowflakes.  Large, lacy flakes indicate that the snowfall will not last long, whereas tiny flakes suggest a greater likelihood of a longer snow and more accumulation.  This larger-is-less and littler-is-more theory is not unlike the farm saying about rain—if the chickens dash for the coop, it’s only a passing shower.  If the chickens stay out in it, it’s going to rain for a while.

What kind of snowfall and how much is no light matter for farmers.  Just a few winters ago, the snow fell so fast, deep, and heavy, that it collapsed barns in Minnesota.  The winds blew the drifting snow to the lea side of the barn, causing a great imbalance of weight on the roof.  Farmers raced in to try to save their cattle, but many were injured or lost, including some of the farmers.  One dairyman remembered the terrifying sound of the nails popping out of the rafters as the roof gave way.  Still others were lost from falling off roofs as they tried to remove the snow before structures collapsed.

The worst types of winter snows on farms are preceded by ice.  Sticking to every surface, it fills latches and freezes doors shut and creates a layer on which the snow can securely stick instead of sliding off.  It is the same type of weather that downs trees and power lines, making roads particularly hazardous.  Add to this a boisterous wind, and now there is lowered visibility and gathering drifts to complicate the situation.

But the chores still need to be done!  In pioneer days, ropes were tied from the house to the barn, so farmers could hang on as they made their way through blinding snow.  In Vermont, some farms solved the problem by connecting all the buildings together.  This way, in winter, there was no need to go outside at all!  The oldest methods for livestock housing in Scandinavia put the human living quarters right above those of the animals—conserving heat and need for care, as well as providing watchful eyes against cattle thieves.

Of course, years ago, the snows were quite spectacular compared to what we commonly experience today.  Grandpa remembers coming up to the farm in the 1960’s for hunting season.  He made the mistake of stepping off a trail and found himself swallowed in a snowbank.  After considerable struggling, Grandpa managed to rescue himself, but he never made that mistake again.  Other stories tell of tying brightly colored objects to the radio antennas of cars to alert other vehicles of approaching traffic at intersections—the snow was so high that it was difficult to see the actual car!

But why should the recipe for such heavy snowfalls come from easterly winds?  This is because the “backside” of winter storms hold the most moisture.  Just when it seems that all has passed, the snowload arrives.  Such a glut of frozen water crystals arrived during one of my March residencies at college in Vermont.  Grandma and Grandpa were helping hold down the farm, and they sent pictures of the two-and-a-half feet that had fallen overnight.  It took our friend Jon several hours of laboring with his snowplow to make a path back to the farm and our house.  We even had to shovel trails to the chicken coops, just to get through.  The snow slowly curled off the southern wing of the barn roof, like a tidal wave in extremely slow motion with little foamy ice formations at its tip.  The sight was both magical and alarming—I did not want to be standing beneath that ice wave when it finally broke free from the edge of the roof!  If you hear a rumble, run!!!

Today, as we prepare for the weekend’s threat of “winter weather alerts,” the beehives are snuggly wrapped beneath their insulation and tar paper, the last of the panels of hog fencing are drug into the shed, and the stashes of firewood are heartily restocked.  The shovels await, and the sleds still listing in the rafters dream of frosty piles that announce the transition from wheelbarrows to skids for hauling this and that across the barnyard. 

And as the storm approaches, our eyes and thoughts will be turned to the east, in expectation.  Is that a big snowflake or a little one?  Which way has the wind sock atop the barn turned?  How gray grows the afternoon sky?  It’s time to hunker down, stay warm, and make certain the animals are comfortable and well-fed before a long winter’s night.  It’s also a good time to sit by the fire with a good book or play music with friends and family.

As the snows settle in around us this winter, imagine the days when tunnels were carved in the drifts to access Main Street businesses or when country folks had to climb from their second story windows for a bit of fresh air.  Maybe someone in your family has memorable snowstorm stories—the day Mom made it to class only to find the campus was closed and hazard the long walk back home or the time the snow blew so hard no-one could open the back door onto the porch for days.  Winter is a wonderful time for such tales as well as for making new memories amidst the blustery winds from the east.  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

 

 
 

A Good Pot of Soup

There is something to be said for the practice of using every part of the animal.  Native American tribes found value in pelts, bones, sinew, or feathers, as well as meat.  Historically, farmers have also been thrifty with harvested livestock—especially in the days when most small-scale husbandmen (and women) were primarily self sufficient.  A good way to extend this respectful and resourceful tradition lies right at our fingertips—in the kitchen.

I remember being horrified as a child to learn that some of my friends’ parents never saved the carcass of a roasted chicken.  Throw it all in the garbage!  No!  It seemed so wasteful.  Why not save it all and make soup!

Perhaps you already know the age-old story “Stone Soup,” but it is worth retelling this time of year.  A soldier coming home from war finds that no-one will give him food, under the excuse that everyone here is poor and has no food to spare.  Interestingly, this does not seem to surprise the fellow, who proceeds to build a goodly fire beneath a large pot in the middle of town.  He fills the cauldron with water and begins to heat it.  Curious, the townsfolk gather around the fire, wondering what the old soldier has in mind.  As they gossip and quibble behind his back, they see the fellow reach deep into his pockets and pull out a well-polished stone.

“What are you doing?” the village people ask him.

“I am going to make soup,” the soldier replies.  “This magic stone will help us.  Since no-one in this village has any food in their homes, we will make soup from a stone.” 

He ceremoniously places the stone into the water and makes a great show of smelling the steam from the pot.  “Already, the soup is beginning!” the soldier remarks.  “Now, if only we had some carrots…”

“We have carrots in our house!” a little village girl cries in excitement.

“Then bring us some,” the fellow replies, reassuringly, and the girls rushes off towards home.  In a moment, she returns with a hearty handful, scrubbed and ready.  These are added to the boiling pot and thoughtfully stirred.

“Ah yes,” says the soldier.  “Now, if only there were a few potatoes…”  And so on it goes as the villagers forget their differences and their poverty, and bit by bit the pot is filled with vegetables, pork bones, savory herbs and many wonderful things.  Then a feast is shared with all the villagers and everyone is warmed and glad.

When the soldier prepares to depart, the villagers ask if they might keep the magical stone that made such wonderful soup.  “Of course,” the soldier smiles.  “But you don’t need it anymore.  The magic is inside all of your to give and to share.  This is but an ordinary stone from the side of the road,” and he chuckles happily as we continues on his way home.

Today, the chicken (or turkey) carcass, with all the little scraps of meat and flavorful bones, or the remnants of a boned pork roast can serve as that magical stone to your own homemade soup.  There is nothing quite like a kitchen full of family, chopping onions and celery, carrots and potatoes for a sumptuous pot of soup, especially as the days grow chilly and chase us from the out-of-doors.

If this is your first time preparing a soup entirely from scratch (and are consciously trying to resist tossing the remnants of the beast into the rubbish bin), fear not.  The best place to start is with a good old-fashioned crock pot.  It would be hard to think of a traditionally-minded farm kitchen without one!  Break the carcass into manageable pieces and stuff them into the crock pot, including any uneaten wings or legs, but especially be sure to save the back and neck.  Add enough water to fill approximately two-thirds of the pot, then set it on low overnight. 

In the morning, turn off the crock pot and let it cool until the chicken is a temperature that is comfortable to handle.  Next comes the part our dogs love best.  With the waste basket handy, use a slotted spoon to remove all the chicken parts and place them into a separate bowl.  Then, with patience, use your fingers to separate bones from meat, returning any of the latter to the crock pot with the broth.  Discard the bones; they’ve already worked their magic.

This is where our two dogs come in when we make soup at home.  As soon as the lid from the crock pot is lifted, they materialize from any corner of the house—sitting patiently and staring with their enormous dark eyes, hoping for a bit of skin or a wayward tidbit to fall on the floor.  (No cooked bones for the dogs, though, because bones become brittle after heating and can splinter easily).  Even the house pets look forward to soup-making day on the farm!

Now you are ready to turn that meaty, infused broth into a beautiful homemade soup.  Here is a recipe we recently used at Farmstead Creamery & Café you can try:

Herbed Chicken and Barley Soup

2 hearty quarts of broth with chicken

1 Tbs. olive oil

2 stalks celery, chopped

Half a medium onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

1 leek, chopped (can substitute shallot or more onion)

½ cup pearl barley

Coarse black pepper, to taste

1 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme (1 tsp. dried)

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley (5 tsp. dried)

2 Tbs. chopped fresh sweet marjoram (2 tsp. dried)

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot and sauté onions, celery, and leeks until soft.  Add carrots and herbs and continue to sauté.  Add remaining ingredients (chicken, broth, and barley) and return to a simmer.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the barley is finished.  Serve steaming hot with your favorite bread or salad.  A little snow on the ground makes it all taste even better.

There is nothing quite like a good pot of chicken soup to remind one of the comforts of home, especially when the practice connects us with methods our grandmothers, or great-grandmothers knew quite well.  Here’s to a steaming bowl, beautiful snows, and fond memories.  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

 
 

Giving Thanks

Over the river and through the woods

To Grandmother’s house we go

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the bright and drifting snow-oh

Over the river and through the woods

Oh how the wind does blow

It stings the nose and bites the toes

As over the ground we go.

This traditional Thanksgiving-time song would be present in my mind as we made the five hour drive north to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in the Big Woods when I was a little kid.  I’d watch the tree-lined miles slip by with my nose pressed up against the glass car window, steaming up the pane.  The farm was a magical place to come for Thanksgiving dinner, which it still is even now that I live here full time.

Coming down to the farm has, historically, been a memorable part of Thanksgiving traditions for many families.  Why else would there be all the fuss over the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the golden winter squash with caramelized drizzle, the mashed potatoes with melting butter, the custardy pumpkin pie with Grandma’s famous crust, or the ruby-red cranberry sauce?  These are all bountiful parts of late autumn’s harvest on the farm—lovingly raised and lovingly prepared by family for family.

We’ve all heard the stories of the “original” Thanksgiving dinner.  But however true or fabled this national story is, the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today was established by Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War to give thanks for the preservation of the Union.  The reuniting of family (some of whom travel great distances) around the farm table is, in its own way, a celebration of the coming together of the disparate factions of our country.  If nothing else, at least we can be grateful for the harvest together.

And there is much to be grateful for this year.  In the Northland, the drought was not as severe as further downstate.  Our farm was spared any fires, tornadoes, or large hale.  We hope to have enough hay to get by.  The turkeys grew up healthy and vigorous, as did the lambs and piglets.  The garden is harvested and nearly all put to bed, and life is winding down towards its winter routines.  It’s a time for reflection on the growing season’s learning points, with plans beginning for the coming season’s preparations.

A good old fashioned agrarian Thanksgiving is not about football, or a parade, or a shopping frenzy—it is about giving the gift of time to each other.  Time to talk, share stories, and laugh; time to peel potatoes and pass the apple cider; and time to relax by the stone fireplace and read a book aloud or play a rousing game of Sorry or Backgammon.

There’s something about the smell of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, made by hand with farm-fresh ingredients.  It is amazing how much more flavorful a turkey can be when it spent its life on grass and was never injected with oil and salt.  The aromas of the baking stuffing with bread, celery, and herbed pork sausage can drive an imaginative and hungry child nearly crazy with anticipation—but of course, the wait always makes the difference.

The commercial food system has taught us not to wait for food anymore, that having to wait for our meal is somehow bad.  Why peel those potatoes you dug out of your garden when you can mix them up right out of this box?  Why boil and mash those cranberries from your neighbor down the road when you can just plop it out of this can?  Why even bake the turkey when you can have this plastic-encased rotisserie chicken instead?  Well, folks, have any of those pre-processed items actually made you feel better than the home-grown variety?

There is a reason they don’t.  They may be easier, but they are not fulfilling.  In many folk cultures, it is considered unwise to allow someone in a bad mood to fix a meal.  This is because that unhappy energy is believe to be transmitted to the food, which will not be physically, socially, or mentally nourishing for the people who eat it.  Why were Mother’s cookies hot and gooey out of the oven always the best?  Because, besides being full of chocolate chips, they were packed full of motherly love.  While this idea is not easily proved by science, experience can speak for itself.  I would take a homegrown turkey prepared by my grandmother over a rotisserie chicken any day! 

That poor rotisserie chicken was raised on a factory farm, butchered by a series of machines, and shipped a long distance before being roasted in a commercial oven somewhere in corporate America.  This is the processed food reality that we live in.  The chicken might never have seen a person, let alone felt love or care.  Something is missing on the ingredient list that we all need—nurturing attention. 

Getting back to foods infused with nurturing attention means reaching back and embracing traditional agrarian meals prepared the old fashioned way.  Michael Pollan, the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” says, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  This is certainly a great place to start when choosing what to eat.  I never did know my great grandmothers, but I suspect that they would have preferred their own garden, the local butcher shop, and the farmer’s market over the commercial food industry.

Small-scale, sustainably minded farmers have learned to focus their lifestyle on what really matters—doing the right thing for the land, their family, and their community.  And that is something to give thanks for this holiday.  Maybe you and your family can even take a moment this week to share your thanks with your farmer—they probably don’t hear it very often.

I don’t know what your Thanksgiving will be like this year, but I hope it is filled with the warmth, love, and care that surrounds the old farm dinner table.  I hope it is encircled by smiling friends and family, accompanied by the friendly waging tails of beloved pets.  Maybe you will even take a moment to go outside and enjoy this beautiful corner of earth we live upon.  And most of all, I hope that we shall all take this moment to give thanks, together.  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

 
 

Cutover Farms

Back when Wisconsin became the 30th state in the Union, its northern regions were the impenetrable Big Woods.  But once the horrible and bloody Civil War came to a close, scores of men who had been employed by the military were looking for something to do.  Some went West to fight in ongoing skirmishes with Native Americans, while others headed North to become Pinery Boys and Lumberjacks. 

Chicago had burnt to the ground, and timbers were needed to rebuild.  Towns all over where expanding into cities, industry was booming, and the towering White Pines were believed to be there for the taking.  The massive deforestation process left the land stark and barren, and it forever changed wildlife habitat and weather patterns for the region.

The timbering industry brought with it railroads, towns, mills, and saloons.  But the trees would not last forever.  Once an area was cleared, the camps moved on to new territory, leaving behind massive stumps in their wake.  Timber Barons no longer wanted this land, and much of it was granted or sold to immigration agencies.

When volunteering one summer for the Sawyer County Historical Society, I learned how these agencies tried to sell the cutover land.  Their target audience was farmers.  In the days before Photo Shop, the immigration agencies doctored black-and-white photographs of wheelbarrows stacked with monstrous potatoes or hay wagon loaded with gargantuan cabbages.  “Prime Farm Land,” they touted, “Seven Easy Steps for Pulling Out Stumps!”

But as new immigrant farmers soon discovered, there was nothing easy about pulling out those stumps.  The old farm saying, “Sometimes it’s easier to plow around the stumps” exists for a reason.  But most of those stumps came out—blasted by dynamite, dug with grubbing hoes, and ripped from the earth with teams of draft horses.  We still have some of the old boxes that held the dynamite used by the Fullingtons to clear the farm’s fields.

As late autumn has stripped the trees and shrubs of their leaves, you can still see the old torn-out stumps along the edge of the fields.  Most sprout healthy stands of silver birches.  Others stretch with gnarled, gray ridges alongside piles of stone that were cleared to ease the burden of farm machinery in the sandy soil.  These weathered remnants stand as sentinels to an era that once was but is long past.

Those first pioneering farmers came in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  E. P. Fullington, an elderly Civil War veteran originally from Vermont, came with his 20-year-old son Lloyd in 1906 to claim a piece of land along a tributary to Hay Creek.  Together, they pulled stumps, built the barn and log cabin, and gradually added more acreage to the homestead.  In 1968, when Lloyd sold the farm to my grandparents, he made them promise never to plant trees in those fields.  The memory of the tremendous effort to clear the land so many years ago was still fresh and present in his heart.

Another wave of farmers came to the Northland during the Great Depression.  One gentleman who has stopped at our Creamery told of how his grandparents had homesteaded the farm down the road a piece from us in the 1930’s.  They had been living in Chicago but were concerned that the Depression would leave them starving, so they headed north in their half-broken-down Ford as far up as they dared and began clearing the land.  At least, out in the countryside, they could do their best to grow their own food.

But the soils of the region were not the best suited for agriculture.  Between the glaciers and the reckless deforestation process, the topsoil was thin and fragile.  Rocks and sand did not hold moisture well, and traditional tillage practices were better suited to lands Downstate.  Once the Great Depression had passed, many of the farm children moved into town and found new occupations. 

Instead of encouraging farming, government agencies began to actively discourage it in favor of moving the region towards resorts and recreation projects.  CCC camp workers replanted most of the forests, and as the old homesteads began to sell off, most were converted to pine plantations.  There is a general saying for the area that each pine plantation is likely to have once been someone’s farm.

But difficult soils are not impossible, and some of the old cutover farms, like ours, are still here.  Rigorous composting and low-tillage methods work best to regenerate soil, as do rotational grazing practices for livestock.  Farming in the Northland might not have been extremely successful, but it is still an important part of the region’s heritage to preserve and celebrate.  Unfortunately, Sawyer County projects a continued loss of land zoned for agriculture in the next 10 to 20 years.  For those who care about fostering local farming, this expectation is a great tragedy.

Daily life and the region’s landscape looked very different during the height of cutover farms.  Little 20, 40 or 80 acre homesteads lined the old rutted roadways.  Most were of the self-sustaining sort—growing a little bit of everything to get by.  They had a few pigs, some milk cows, a handful of chickens, and a back garden.  Some folks grew potatoes as a cash crop, or onions, or cabbages.  The sandy soil worked well for root crops, if you could keep the potato beetles at bay.  Families traded goods and services, and in the early days some of the men worked in logging camps during the winter and farmed in the summer.  Most folks walked or rode horses to wherever they needed to go.  Town could be a pretty rough place, influenced by lumber barons and the railway lines.

It was a hardscrabble place, but generally folks helped each other through the hard times, with barn raisings and quilting bees.  When the Fullington’s log cabin burnt down by accident, the community held a fundraising social to get the family back on their feet.  It was in the midst of WWII and supplies were scarce, but they built a new frame home as best they could.  All that had been saved from the fire were some important papers and Wilma’s sewing machine (minus one drawer, which fell out as she ran from the burning house).  Even after tragedy, farm families picked up the pieces and kept going.

As our society continues to muddle through difficult economic times, it is heartening to share the stories and experiences of the original homesteaders of the region who faced so many difficulties for starting a new life on the cutover.  Even when obstacles seem taxing, at least we don’t have to rise up each morning to pull more stumps!  This week, take some time to learn the stories of cutover farms in your area, even if all that remains are the foundations of homes and barns, grown up in trees and briars.  That homesteading spirit and value of community still survives amongst the brave few who continue to work the land with nurturing hands.  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

 

 
 

All Hallows Evening

The ancient holidays follow the rhythms of agrarian life—of planting and harvesting, sewing and reaping.  In the age of the Celts, Samhain (said SAH-win, meaning “summer’s end”) was a special time for celebration.  It marked the final season of harvest and the time for preparedness against the oncoming winter months.  But it also held strong ties to magic and mystery, which linger yet today.

The Celtic peoples, who at one time ruled most of Europe, held beliefs that are remarkably similar to some of the theories being posed by quantum physics.  Simmering down the mind-stretching twists of quantum physics offers this nugget:  life exists in multiple layers of reality that can occupy the same space without interacting except at pivotal moments of collision between “planes.”  A collision of planes is one theory offered for the beginning of “The Big Bang.”  To the Celts, this phenomenon happened quite regularly, though in a much more mundane fashion.  When the two layers of existence touched, people could comingle with magic of the “Otherworld.”

Unlike the Greek “Underworld,” where the dead reside, the Otherworld is filled with magical beings, both human-like and non-human.  From this realm come the treasure trove of stories of the faerie (in Ireland, they are called the “shee”)—elves, sprites, trolls, gnomes, and many more.  To the ancient Celts, Samhain marked the time of year when the veil separating the two worlds grew thin, and the faerie might walk upon the earth equally with mankind.  It was a dangerous time for those uninitiated in the ways of the shee, who might beguile mortals into entrapment in the Otherworld for seven years or more. 

As Christianity spread through Europe, the magical peoples of the Celtic world became increasingly demonized, and the thought of having goblins and gremlins walking the earth in the lengthening dark grew to terrifying proportions in folk culture.  Priestesses of the Goddess were deemed wicked witches, and hair-raising tales were told of their magical potions and devilish spells.  Added to that were superstitions about black cats, ghosts, and other ghoulish creatures.  Samhain was no longer a turning of one year to the next for, as it had been for the Celts—it was a time of bewitching and spookish pranks like the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

Supplanting the ancient Samhain rights, medieval Catholicism offered celebratory alternatives.  Celtic holidays always spanned three days, so overthrowing the Celtic New Year took a bit of extra effort.  November first became “All Saint’s Day,” in honor of both patron saints and worthy martyrs, and November second became “All Soul’s Day,” in honor of those who had departed.  But still, the magic of the last day of October pulled at the memories of folk culture, especially in the British Isles.

The Christian calendar is heavily based on the Roman system, which puts the New Year in the middle of wintertime.  Equally so, the Roman day starts in the middle of the night.  The Celts had a different opinion about when things started and ended, with the end of the year at the end of summer and the end of the day at sunset.  Therefore, to properly celebrate a holiday beginning November first, the festivities commenced on what the Romans called the evening before.  Since All Soul’s Day was also called “All Hallows,” the night before was “All Hallows Evening.”  This can be shortened to “All Hallows E’en” (think British accent)—Halloween.

Now, if you were the sort of person who believed in spirits and lived in the rural English countryside with few good roads, no electrical lighting, and only your old gray mare to ride home in the gloaming (dusk), a few spooky sounds in the gathering mist might well spark your imagination.  So, at some point in the history of Halloween, a tradition developed to outwit the lurking demons.  If mere mortals disguised themselves as witches or fairies or spirits, then perhaps they could fool the real ones.  Keep in mind, this was still very much a holiday for adults, with undertones of real danger.  Bonfires were lit on hilltops in an effort to keep ill wishes and presences at bay.  It also happened to be a convenient way to dispose of Black Death victims—the original word being “bone-fire.”

On All Soul’s Day, it became a traditional practice for groups of folk to trek from house to house, caroling:

Soul, a-soul, a soul cake

Please good missus a soul cake

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry

Any good thing to make us all merry

One for Peter, two for Paul

Three for He who made us all.

Soul cakes were a type of moist bread with currants, and upon receiving the token food, the singers promised to pray for the departed souls of the family and offered blessings and wishes for growing prosperity. 

As people of Celtic ancestry immigrated to America, they brought many of their folk ways with them.  Out on the prairie, young men would play pranks on each other during this season—dismantling wagons and re-assembling them atop barn roofs.  Later, some would take apart model-T cars and put them back together inside a small space (like a dorm room) or other such less-than-convenient place.  Farm wives attempted to thwart such behavior by offering baked “treats” to their neighbors in exchange for not being the victim of a prank.

But Victorian culture was fast demoting folk traditions from the lived world of adults to the world of literature for children, and with this came many of the traditional holiday activities.  Soon, treats were offered in an effort to keep the windows from being soaped or other silly behaviors, hence the offering of a choice between “trick or treat.”  Children also embraced the idea of dressing as witches, devils, or ghosts (one has to find a way to be a little naughty sometime), which are traditional costume choices still today, though the repertoire has been widely expanded.

Carving turnip lanterns morphed into carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns, perhaps in honor of the Jack in folktales who was always getting in and out of trouble with giants, magic fingers, and flying boats.  Ghost tales continue to thrill children and some grown-ups, as do candied apples, roasted pumpkin seeds, and spice cake.  It is a great pity that the fear of ill-intended tampering has moved the giving of treats to children away from these agrarian harvest foods in favor of commercial candies.  Homemade popcorn balls or soft pretzels are healthier and full of more love than an artificially flavored lollypop.

This Halloween night, think on the ancient rights of Samhain—summer’s end.  And maybe, as the owls hoot or the wolves howl in the woods, you’ll find just the right time to share your own spooky story or memory of Halloween pranks amidst pumpkins or gravestones.  Catch a mug of hot cider, sing a song for those who have gone before us, and maybe we’ll 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

 

 
 

The Grand Molt

It has a way of creeping up on you.  Maybe not for the barnyard fowl so much, but at least for their caretaker.  First, the days grow noticeably shorter.  Then the egg production slackens.  Certainly, laying eggs is correlated with exposure to light, but this change seems fairly drastic.  I chide the ladies for being pikers…and then I realize that this is the time of year for The Grand Molt.

Feathers are nature’s most complex skin covering.  Lightweight, insulating, and empowering flight, feathers are also a wonderful means of display.  Made of collagen (like your fingernails), the material is lightweight, structurally strong, and colors well.  Pigments offer tones in yellow, red, brown, and black, while blues and greens are caused by prisms in the feather itself reflecting and refracting light.  Take a rooster’s emerald green tail plumage, remove it from direct sunlight, and it become simply a black feather. 

Recent archeological digs in China have unearthed amazing evidence of early feathers on dinosaurs, which were neither very insulating nor aerodynamic.  These basic feathers, much like the coarse covering on a kiwi bird, are believed to have been primarily used for display—making the creature appear larger or adding attraction for a mate.  As this new modified scale was honed, it formed into the wide range of feather types found today—primary flight feathers, downy feathers, water-repellant feathers, and display feathers.  The airfoils on an airplane’s wing are modeled after feathers, and science has yet to produce any substance as insulating as goose down.  The feathers of waterfowl are so naturally structured that, even when completely stripped of their oils, they still cause water to bead up and wick away.

But before you wish you could have been endowed with feathers to keep warm this autumn, know that this complex skin covering comes at a price.  Even the most well-preened feather wears out from exposure to wind, sun, and use, and it has to be sloughed off and a new one grown in its place.  This process is called molting.

In the spring of the year (when the sheep are shorn before lambing), I always feel a pang of guilt for the ewes, who shiver at the drastic change in clothing.  But at least I am comforted knowing that warmer weather is on its way.  My chickens, turkeys, and ducks on the other hand have a habit of changing their feather coats in late autumn.  To a degree, this makes sense—going into the winter months with fresh feathers.  But as I watch them turn from sleek hens to a motley crew of dishevelment, I can’t help but feel that this is less than perfect timing.

I know it has reached The Grand Molt when I open the coop door in the morning and am showered in a rolling cloud of disembodied, worn out feathers.  They billow out in all directions, littering the coop floor and the yard outside.  And my half-undressed ladies bob about looking like homeless drifters who have little care for appearances—a far cry from their summer vanity of careful preening and disgruntlement at having their feathers ruffled the wrong way.  These days, they look as well kempt as a teenager’s bedroom.

But growing feathers takes considerable energy, with each new plume starting as a “pin feather” wrapped in a scaly sheath.  This capsule is filled with blood as it forms the interlocking barbs and sturdy shaft of the feather.  When the feather is ready to emerge, the scales of the pin shatter (creating rather a lot of dust in the coop), and the formed feather begins to elongate until it has reached its proper length.  In the meantime, because of this taxing growth, hens often cease laying eggs until the molt is complete.

I tease my mangy lot while trudging through morning chores with an Appalachian folk tune.

My old hen was a good old hen

Best darn hen ever laid an egg

Sometimes white, sometimes brown

Best little hen this side of town

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid an egg since way last fall

First time she cackled, she cackled quite a lot

Next time she cackled, she cackled in the pot

My old hen, she won’t do

She lays eggs and taters too

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid a egg since way last fall

The turkeys prance sheepishly, holding low their bunt tails.  Patches are missing here and their, showing the wispy down beneath.  The Toms often regret to offer their poofed display until at least some of their tail feathers return.  The ducks shows the least change (perhaps because ducks are endowed with ever so many more feathers—you know if you ever tried to pluck one).  But the yard full of scattered white bits give a telltale sign.

Birds grow new feathers nearly all the time.  Young birds graduate from their first chick plumage to adult-sized feathers.  New feathers replace ones that have been damaged or pulled out by bossy comrades.  But the molting process is the avian way of “changing the closet” for the coming of winter.  No need to buy a down vest when you can grow one!

Yet even in the midst of The Grand Molt, I know that this too shall pass.  The billowing feathers will settle, and my ladies will become sleek and vain once again.  And all the birds will be warm and snug for winter.  In the meantime, it’s not avian mange; it’s just the annual molt.  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

 

 
 

It's Pumpkin Time

The golden-orange orbs with gnarly, spiny caps are coming!  Soon they shall appear on porches, stair steps, decks, and sidewalks.  They come short and plump, tall and curious, or just plain round and ribbed—ready for autumnal festivities.

Europeans, however, were not introduced to pumpkins (or winter squash, tomatoes, potatoes, maize, sunflower seeds, and several other foods) until their arrival on the American continents.  While some of these crops were adopted readily, like corn, others were given a more hesitant welcome.  Pumpkins, for instance, were mistrusted by recent immigrant farmers well into the 1800’s, who deemed them fit for feeding pigs but not for humans.

My grandfather remembers raising pumpkins for the hogs down on his family’s farm in central Illinois.  When it was planting time, his dad would throw pumpkin seeds in the horse-drawn corn seeder amongst the yellow kernels.  Those pumpkin vines would crawl around amidst the corn stalks, and just before harvesting time, it was Grandpa’s job to wade through the dry cornfield and throw ripe pumpkins on the hay wagon to save up for winter hog feed.  The family, however, enjoyed their good old-fashioned pumpkin pie as well.

A lady once told me of an incident when she gave a pumpkin to a neighbor friend who had recently moved out to the country.  She offered the vegetable as a gift, telling the neighbor that it could be made into pumpkin pie.  The newcomer was delighted, saying how much she loved an autumn treat, but the pleasure turned awry when the gardener received a worried phone call.

“Ma’am, I think there is something wrong with the pumpkin you gave me.”

“Oh, what’s the matter?”

“Well, when I cut it open, it’s all stringy inside, and there are seeds.”

The neighbor had never fixed a pumpkin before and had supposed that the inside would naturally look like what comes from a can…time for a lesson in homestead cooking.

But pumpkins can be more than pie, bread, or other treats.  The tradition of carving vegetables dates to ancient times in Celtic countries, where the material of choice was large turnips set with small candles inside.  The glowing ghoulish faces added spark to the festivities that marked the coming of the dark time of the year.

If you have ever made a valiant attempt to carve out a turnip, however, you will know that a pumpkin is a breeze in comparison.  Saw around the stem in an arch big enough to fit your fist into, pull it off, scoop around with a sturdy spoon, hoist out the stringy center with seeds (that can be roasted, yum!), and what remains is a fragrant cavern surrounded by thick, sturdy flesh.

I love carving pumpkins.  Traditional faces still are fun, but even better is letting the imagination run free by carving dragons, headless horsemen, puppy dog faces, or arched-back cats.  Almost any idea can be carved into a pumpkin, with the holes acting like the pieces of stained glass in a window—it is a play between light and substance, form and sculpture. 

Curious to learn more about pumpkin carving?  I’ll be hosting a Master Class on October 27th at Farmstead Creamery & Café.  Give us a shout if you think that getting elbow-deep in pumpkin fun is your kind of adventure!  There will likely be some pumpkin treats at hand as well.

Pumpkins (or punkins, if you want to use a rural accent) have a way of getting around.  Perhaps this is because our pigs get to enjoy some of them, but invariably by midsummer, pumpkin vines are sprouting from unnoticed corners of the garden, out of the compost pile, or vining their way past the beehives.  Kelli, a former intern and farm groupie who often accompanies me at the farmer’s market, showed me a picture of a pumpkin vine growing in the middle of her driveway!

“I tried to hurl the half-rotten thing across the yard to the woods, but I missed.  It went splut right there, and this spring it decided to grow!”

With all this discussion of pumpkins, how about fixing some for supper!  Here is a recipe we shared with our CSA members and have been fixing at the Café.  A real pie pumpkin (like the variety Sugar Pie) will cook up much better than any carving kind.

Pie Pumpkin and Potato Gnocchi

(said “nockey,” these are little dumplings originally from Italy)

1 pie pumpkin (recipe takes 1 cup finished pumpkin)

1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 tsp salt                     

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

1 3/4 cup flour            

Sage leaves and butter

Prepare and bake pie pumpkin as you would any winter squash (cut in half, seeds removed, face down in a pan of water baked at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour). 

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring potatoes and enough water to cover to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes until potatoes are very tender.  Drain well. 

In a bowl using a potato masher, mash potatoes until very smooth.  Add 1 cup pumpkin, salt, nutmeg, and mash until blended.  Using a spoon, stir in flour until the dough almost holds together.  With your hands, gently press dough into a ball.  Divide in half. 

On a floured surface with floured hands, gently knead each ball into a smooth, soft dough.  Divide each into 6 pieces.  Roll each piece into a rope about 3/4 inch thick in diameter.  Cut rope crosswise into 1-inch pieces (gnocchi).  Place gnocchi in a lightly floured pan.  Repeat until all the dough is gnocchi. 

In a saucepan, over high heat, bring 4 quarts water to a boil.  Transfer gnocchi individually (using 1/3 of them per batch) to the boiling water.  As soon as they float, carefully remove with a slotted spoon.  Blot spoon with paper towel and place gnocchi on a platter.  Repeat.  Serve with melted butter infused with chopped sage.

Pumpkins are a wonderful way to add a bit of autumnal festiveness to your home or celebrations.  They won’t take up space in your closet; they are 100% compostable, gluten free, and vegan!   And if you happen to be looking for one more commendable aspect to a pumpkin, there just might be a hungry hog out there somewhere who would be willing to call it supper.  See you down at the farm sometime.

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

 
 

The Glory of Autumn

Folks are on the roads these days.  Up and down the twisting, winding rural ribbons of pavement—stopping, staring, wondering.  I know this because some of these folks have stopped in the café lately, their eyes glinting, their faces smiling.  The Northland is filled with the wondrous colors of autumn:  fiery reds, lilting yellows, the last of fading greens, and new burnt umbers.  Not long and the unspeakable mahoganies of oaks will appear, along with the lacy, highlighter-yellow fringes of tamaracks.

On the farm, the sugarbush is a rush of golden orange and red—a prefect time of year to tie bright ribbons around sturdy trunks to mark which trees are good for tapping in the spring.  It seems like it will be an age before the season of dripping maple sap into the bucket—thump, thump, thump.  But for now, the cold time of year is coming.  Time to wind down the garden and rake up all the fallen bits of leafy glory. 

Autumn is an important time on the homestead.  Back in the days of one-room school houses out on the edge of the prairie, classes were in session during the summer and winter months only.  Spring and autumn were so occupied with either planting or harvesting that every hand was out in the field or in the barn threshing, baling, storing away for the year.  The creaky cider press was hard at work, turning crunchy apples into an irresistible, frothy juice—cloudy as a witch’s brew, sweet and tangy at the same time.  Cider could be stopped up in barrels and fermented, which kept considerably longer in the pioneer days before refrigeration than whole apples could have hoped to manage.

Autumn chore time comes in stages.  The first is the “coat” stage, where the morning chill requires an extra layer on the arms and torso.  This is followed by the “hat” stage, which is usually accompanied by the transition from any old coat to a Carhart or hand-me-down (down) jacket.  Finally, the cold gets the best of us, and it’s the “glove” stage.  When temperatures really plummet, the gloves are switched for mittens, so the fingers can share some heat.  Either way, there still is an on-again, off-again relationship to gloves for autumn chores, with those tricky miss-matched latches on barn doors and chicken coops that just will not cooperate without the use of bare hands.  Yet, we manage somehow—shoving fingers in pockets or under arms to thaw their icy edges.

The sheep’s breath billows steamy in the mornings.  They look at me and baah, wondering where all the lush summer grass has gone.  Turkeys chase intrepid grasshoppers that make the bold mistake of leaping into the pen.  And the more complex animal watering systems sometimes find themselves froze solid in the morning.  Autumn truly is a transitional time on the farm—time for bringing the livestock in to winter quarters, and time for wrapping up the loose ends of projects you always meant to get to sometime…

While caring for the animals this afternoon, the sheer brilliance of autumn’s splendor surrounding the fields filled me with a renewed appreciation for the uniqueness of a northwoods farm setting.  The goldfinch-yellow popples quake and shimmer, highlighted against the steady green of red and white pines.  A grouse spooks by the tree-line, and something crunches through the underbrush—a deer emerges, glancing furtively before going her way.  Everyday life on a northwoods farm offers something new, and as Nature lets go of another season of growth and maturation, the farm is slowly stocked up and put to rest for another year.

The squirrels know.  They dash about, always in a hurry, snatching everything and anything to literally “squirrel” away for winter.  There is a particular fellow who sits on a fence post by the barn—his presence is attested by the pile of pinecone tidbits on the ground below.  Sometimes he will be perched there, gnawing away, as I pass through the gate.  We look at each other, teasingly, and play a little at pretend chasing.  But none of these antics are in earnest because the real chase we make this time of year is with time.

The day length is the most dramatic change in autumn for farmers.  In high summer, there is light enough to start chores early and work until 10:30 or 11:00 in the evening before the dew settles in and enough is enough.  Lately, the evening encroaches near 7:00, with the fingers of dusk creeping earlier and earlier each night.  Daylight comes at a lazy 6:30 or so.  The last days of farmer’s market are packed up in the dark (and sometimes in a little snow!).  There no longer seems enough time in the day to take care of all the homestead’s growing needs—and there certainly isn’t any time just laying around.

Some aspects of the days and nights growing colder are make-work on the farm, to the point where it feels like “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza”!  Now, I’ll admit to not being the biggest grease monkey on the farm before I embark on this story, but some days just have it in for you.  It was early, and having chores finished in a timely manner was important, but it was also cold.  Our trusty old ATV is hooked up to a small trailer with a water tanker that we can trundle around to the different animal abodes, making chores efficient—theoretically.  On this morning, first the battery was dead.  Ok, recharge the battery for a while.  Then I flooded the poor thing with the choke trying to get it started.  Wait a while for that to clear.  Finally, with some help, we got the ATV chugging away.  I filled up the tanker and started shuttling from hens to ducks to turkeys, balancing buckets of cracked feed smelling softly of molasses.

But it was on the way back from the turkeys that life really got rough.  Coming down a small hill, I heard a clunk.  Just the day before, Grandpa had taken the wheels off the trailer to give them a good greasing (they had been squeaking like the squirrel was trapped inside!), but the original cotter keys had broke.  He had replaced that with a bit of wire, and I was good to go, maybe. 

At that moment on the hill, one of those wires broke too, and the drag that ensued was pretty intense.  I pulled the brakes to a stop as one of the trailer wheels rolled on by all of its own.  Looking back, the axel was well buried in the dirt.  That was it, time to get off and just plain ol’ walk the rest of chores!  Enough was enough!  And, guess what, by morning when we could get back to the machine, the battery was dead from the cold.  Had we been here before?

Still, on this day, the wondrous color of nature’s autumnal gown washes away all the frustrations as she sheds her tiny solar panels—a great hurrah of accomplishment.  We live in a precious and beautiful place, full of magic and challenges, rhythms and surprises.  As you take some time this week to enjoy the glory of autumn, reconnect with how this transitional season still leaves its mark on our lives, whether this be through the automotive leaflooking trek or the hurried digging of the last potatoes.  And maybe we’ll 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

 

 
 

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


 
 

Forever True Farm Dogs

You can sing praises to the barn cats that catch their weight in small vermin or that sit quivering in eager anticipation as the cow is being milked—hoping for a squirt of warm creaminess aimed their way.  You can compliment the watchful (if noisome) guinea fowl that patrol the edge of the barnyard, praying on ticks.  Or you can enjoy the simple pleasures of watching the pigs root up next year’s garden patch for you, weeding as they go.  But a farm is just not fully a farm without its ever-true farm dog.

There is a black-and-white photograph of our homestead’s original farm dog (or at least the one everybody remembers), back in the days when the Fullingtons were still carving the fields out of the forest.  King was a large, wooly beast of a dog that knew every inch of the territory and loved his people dearly.  That parka of a coat kept King warm even in the harshest of winters, when a week would go by with temperatures hovering around 50 below, when the wind blew driving ice from the north and the snow piled up higher than cars.  Even in weather like this, the cows still have to be milked and the horses fed and watered.

When we moved to the farm, admittedly our first dog was (and still is) not of the typical farm stock.  This is because we brought our little Bichon Frise named Sophie with us from our condominium in Madison, where dog sizes had been restricted.  But despite her diminutive size and white, curly coat, Sophie has been determined to live up to farm standards, even if this proves demanding at times.  She takes watching for visitors very seriously, falls nose-over-tail in love with the lambs each spring, and is always there to comfort anyone who is feeling under the weather or injured—including the five little orphaned piglets living in our walk-out basement right now.  Everyone needs love, and that is Sophie’s specialty.

Still, there are just some tasks that are too big for a Bichon, however ambitious.  As Kara’s flock of sheep continued to grow, it became apparent that having an extra set of hands—or paws—would be a great asset.  Farm dogs come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and types, so finding just the right match for our farm became an adventure all of its own.  Border Collies are, or course, the most common choice for moving and managing sheep, but these black-and-white workaholics flourish best out in the open range or in the show-ring.  For them, some of the day-to-day of farm life can grow boring, resulting in unappreciated behaviors as the dogs try to occupy their busy minds and bodies.

There are other kinds of shepherding dogs, however, including the Australian Shepherd, which is taller, stocking, woollier (perhaps King was an Ausie) and originally bred to work cattle.  But what caught Kara’s fancy the most was an even older and rarer breed known as the English Shepherd.  While these multi-purpose dogs were once the breed of choice on farms across America, their popularity died away as more specialized dogs became common.  English Shepherds herd well, control vermin, guard (at least to some degree) and have an uncanny knowledge of where each group of livestock should be at any given time.  There are stories of English Shepherds discovering that their flock or herd has found a break in the fence-line.  After herding all the animals back through the hole, the dog will sit there, maintaining order, until the farmer comes to fix the fence.  Keeping the routine and everything orderly is their mission.

Today, most English Shepherds find occupations on cattle farms.  Breeders are very protective of their puppies and make certain that they are placed on working farms, where they will be able to apply themselves in the environment they were meant to inhabit, instead of cooped up in apartments.  Kara had to complete a rigorous paperwork and interview process in order to bring home our little English Shepherd, picked especially for us because of her petite size and soft mouth—traits deemed better for managing sheep than cattle.  In fact, she was so much smaller than her boisterous littermates that the breeder’s daughter named her Thumbelina.

Now, when you’re trying to snag the attention of our working farm dog across the expanse of the pasture, hollering “Thumbelina!” is not the most efficient.  That and shortening the name to Thumba projects poorly and sounds a bit like “come,” so we opted for calling her Lena.  A tri-color (black, white, and brown), Lena is sleek, fast, and eager to please.  As she matured, Lena delighted in learning her duties alongside us, which she deemed to also include picking raspberries and digging potatoes (claws and teeth work just find when you aren’t equipped with hands), as well as following the sheep back to the barn and hunting voles in the garden.

Lena’s propensity for maintaining order and organization on the farm manifests in frantic barking when a pig gets loose (those pigs still do not know how to be herded, despite valiant canine efforts), bumping the meat chickens with her nose when they fail to walk briskly as we move the chicken tractors, and a particular incident last autumn with turkeys.  Now, to Lena, it seems that a turkey is a turkey is a turkey.  We were relaxing in our living room, which overlooks the garden and parts of the barnyard.  At that time of year, my heritage turkeys live in a coop to the west, where they have their own run (yard) to stretch their legs and catch bugs amongst the grass.  But with the series of mild winters the area has been experiencing, wild turkeys have become more common to sight pecking along roadways and trundling through the edge of the woods.  On this day, a group of about five were trotting down our lane.

At the sight of movement, Lena perked up, began quivering, then commenced barking and jumping up and down.

“Lena!” I chided.  “Those are wild turkeys.  They’re not hurting anybody.”

But that didn’t matter.  Turkeys are turkeys are turkeys, and they go in the coop to the west, not out by the garden!  Lena barked some more, franticly pacing from window to glass door.  Wild or not, turkeys needed to go IN THE COOP, and this crew was headed the WRONG WAY!  Oh my goodness, was it a commotion…until finally those silly turkeys disappeared amidst the trees to the east.

That evening, during chores, Lena still had to check the spot where she had seen them and check the Jersey Buffs back at the coop to make certain that everyone was still in their proper place.  It did not matter that the domestic turkeys were cinnamon colored, while the wild ones were almost black—turkeys had to stay where turkeys were supposed to be!

Yet above all the animals in her care, Lena loves her people.  Once we opened Farmstead Creamery & Café, Lena accepted this space as her territory as well.  While she cannot come inside, Lena is happy to relax by the porch, watching our celebrity chickens Wooster and Clementine and enjoying the curious children (and adults) who come to pet her.  She also takes it as her special duty to announce the arrival of each morning’s first clients and keep track of all the comings and goings.

From companion to watch dog, from herder to greeter, Lena is part of a lineage of forever true farm dogs that shows just how special the human-animal working relationship can be.  Maybe you’ve already met Lena or have your own special memories of farm dogs past and present, but she’ll probably announce your arrival or give you a tail-swirling escort if we see you down at the farm sometime.

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

 
 

Barn Quilts

You may have seen them in Iowa.  You may have seen them out on the prairie.  And if you make it down to the farm, you’ll see them right here in Sawyer County!  These precision-painted pieces adorning agricultural structures are known as “barn quilts,” and they are growing in popularity—both for the farmers who own the structures and for the public who travels to see them.

Often when we think of quilts, what comes to mind are intricately patterned fabrics lovingly stitched in geometric designs on Grandmother’s bed.  Every piece tells a story and ever stitch is filled with time, care, and love.  Barn quilts also require a fine sense of detail and historicity, but the mediums are different—plywood and paint instead of fabric and thread.  But just as comforting quilts have a rich past, so too does the barn quilt.

The first use of barn quilts dates approximately 300 years ago in Pennsylvania amidst Dutch settlements.  At this time, paint was expensive, so barns typically went unpainted—weathering to a natural gray.  Artistic inclinations have a way of sprouting forth despite all obstacles, and color found a way to distinguish barns by the addition of painted quilt squares in prominent locations on the barn’s exterior.  One of the definitions of art is “to make special,” and barn quilts served exactly that purpose during these colonial years.  Their popularity made it customary to give directions by using the names of the quilt squares on individual barns.  

“Once you reach snail’s trail, keep to the right until you see the drunkard’s path.  Then you’ll have reached the Mason farm.”

Like Old Time fiddle tunes, each quilt block has a unique name that refers to its history, creation, or the imaginative nature of its initial maker.  And, not unlike fiddle tunes, while many blocks may appear similar to the casual eye, careful study will show interesting variations and new twists on basic shapes like triangles, rectangles, and squares.  The patterns used in quilting are inseparable from the physics of piecing bits of fabric together to form a coherent whole that still lays flat when finished, and barn quilt patterns keep to these traditional boundaries, including using established block names.

My Aunt Jana (who grew up on the prairie in Nebraska) has a particular fondness for barn quilts—emailing me pictures of her latest finds.  And when, as an inter-generational family project, we decided to create our own barn quilt, it was the name that inspired the final pattern choice.  Since 1968, when my grandparents purchased the homestead from the Fullington family, this place has always been called “North Star,” which influenced the farm’s official name as North Star Homestead.  When Jana discovered that there was a North Star quilt block, it seemed like a perfect fit.

The North Star block has a significant history shrouded in a lingering sense of mystery.  Before the Civil War decided America’s official opinion on the issue of slavery, tens if not hundreds of thousands of African Americans were ushered to freedom in the northern states and Canada by way of the Underground Railroad.  This was not a real railroad with steam engines or tracks, but a path taken by night with “Safe Houses” along the way to hide the fugitives on their treacherous journey north.  A complex and extremely secret code system for helping slaves escape included the use of quilts.  A widely recognized theory tells that women would hang a quilt bearing the North Star block on the front porch to help the runaways know that they had reached a Safe House.

The age of the Underground Railroad came at about the same time that paint became cheap, and barns were seldom left to weather into silvery gray anymore.  A particular shade of red, as well as a crisp white, happened to be the most economical, and they subsequently coated many a barn across the country.  With the coming of cheap paints and the rise of the advertising industry, it became popular among some farmers to sport advertisements (in exchange for monetary compensation) on the sides of their painted barns, rather than the antiquated barn quilts.

But just as fashions have their cycles, so too did the beautiful barn quilts.  But this time, instead of originating in New England, the resurgence of barn quilts came from the American Heartland—the Great Planes states, Iowa, and other parts of the Midwest.  Many counties in Wisconsin now have maps for taking barn quilt tours, and new barn quilts can be seen on our rolling country lanes every year.  While the early pieces distinguished families making a new start in a New World, today’s quilts honor the efforts of women in agriculture throughout history as well as today.  Grandmother’s quilts may have worn to tatters, but the memory of her loving hands endures.

Painting a barn quilt is a unique challenge.  These pieces are quite large—typically eight feet square.  Lines must be very straight and precise, the pattern well proportioned and bold, and completion requires many coats of paint to achieve a rich and solid saturation of color.  The next major challenge is getting this large piece up onto the face of the barn.  Often, this is done with the assistance of a cherry picker, but when our North Star block was ready for hanging, we were not so lucky as to have such a machine handy.  Instead, our friend and contractor Jon Sorensen erected scaffolding in front of the barn, fastened a pulley just below the roof, and screwed metal straps to the top of the barn quilt.  A sturdy rope was tied to the quilt, threaded up through the pulley, and then affixed to the back of our trusty farm ATV.  It was precarious and nerve-wracking, especially with all those tedious coats of paint at risk of being scuffed, but we were ready.

Jon, his son Kyle, and my sister Kara supported the quilt between the barn and the scaffolding and gave my mother and me the “all clear.”  We inched the ATV forward a little…then a little more…then a little bit more…as we watched the quilt ease its way up and up and up.  Kyle and Kara crawled like squirrels amidst the scaffolding, and Jon was ready with his power drill to secure the barn quilt in place once we reached the top.  Everyone breathed deeply and shook their hands free of tension after all was safe.

The quilt changed our historic 1919 barn completely.  For several weeks after the barn quilt’s installation, it would catch my eye during chores, like when a lady dramatically changes her hair color.  I love to watch the morning sun glisten off the dew on the barn quilt’s face or the mid-day shadows shift like a sun dial over its points, cast from the peak in the barn roof.  Our many farm visitors love seeing the barn quilt and learning about its story, meaning, and creation.

When we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, styled after the silhouette and flavor of our barn, we knew that there would have to be another barn quilt—this time a three-quarter sized version.  It was mid-winter when we painted the piece, so it was much too cold to paint outside or in the barn.  I was holding a brush for some final touchups in the farmhouse dining room when Grandpa called.

“What’s going on up there at the farm?”

“Well, right now I’m painting the barn quilt.”

“That’s great, where are you painting?”

Long pause.

“Well, do you really want to know…” I finally asked.

Another long pause.

“Maybe some things are better just left unsaid,” he replied

We both laughed.

“Just tell Grandma that there are lots of sheets and blankets everywhere.”

Did I mention something about art springing forth despite adversity?  This week, as you drive some meandering country lanes, watch for barn quilts, learn their stories, and enjoy this bit of farming heritage.  See you down at the farm sometime.

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

 
 

Donkey on Duty

Living in the Northwoods within the boundaries of the Chequamegon National Forest offers glimpses of a plethora of wild fauna.  From the elegant sandhill cranes that nest in our fields to the portly beaver trying to dam up the creek, from the tiniest ruby-throated hummingbird to the specked white-tailed fawn, wildlife abounds.  But there are certain types of wildlife that can make a farmer nervous, including foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, and other roaming creatures that would be happy to have lamb-on-the-hoof for dinner.

Now, I enjoy all the types of wildlife and don’t mind having wolves in the woods…they can have all the cotton-tail rabbits they want!  But I’m not in the business of raising their dinners for them.  Sorry folks, lamb is not on the menu for the wild canines tonight.  So, the question then is how to create boundaries that are humane for both domestic and wild animals yet keep the sheep safe from predation.

We do, of course, have a rigorous system of electric fences, with high tensile perimeters and Electronet mesh fences for individual, movable paddocks for rotational grazing.  But having a second line of defense is always the best strategy.

There are many traditional methods for protecting sheep in the pasture.  An integral part of the nomadic, pastoral lifestyle was to keep personal watch over the sheep, with a wooden flute to pass the time and a herding dog for company.  While this does sound rather relaxing, I’m afraid that the demands of keeping the farm and the new Creamery & Café running leave little room for lounging with the sheep all day. 

If a human is not available for guarding, then there are a variety of animals that can be of service to the flock.  A favored choice is guard dogs, especially the Great Pyrenees, with its thick, white, mop-like coat.  These hip-high dogs live with the flock full-time and look remarkably like the sheep themselves!  But, when defending against wolves, more than one dog is required.  Wolves are wily enough to send a scout at one end of the field to distract the guard dog, while the other members of the pack attack the sheep from the opposite side.  At least three, if not more, guard dogs must be on the lookout for their flock.  One of the problems with this model, however, is that recent genetic decoding proves that all dogs are direct descendents of wolves.  The instinct to herd and guard is only a thin veneer away from the instinct to hunt, and we have heard some terrible stories about guard dogs turning on the sheep—ensuing in a heartbreaking and bloody mess.

What about other four-legged creatures?  Another option is llamas, which stand tall above the sheep and keep watch, as well as spit and stomp.  Llamas are known for their character edge (as well as lovely fleeces) and serve diligently for smaller predators like foxes and coyotes.  But a Vermont sheep farm where Kara interned found that the llamas did not stand up to a pack of wolves—retreating to the barn and leaving the sheep to their fate.  Wolves prove a formidable foe!

This brings us to the animal that became the protectorate of choice on our farm—a donkey.  Donkeys are tall, like the llamas, and come with radar-big ears and alert eyes.  With strong teeth and hooves for stomping, kicking, biting, and throwing, they face their natural predators with a ferocity that proves their adeptness at surviving in rugged, desert landscapes.  There is even a YouTube video of a donkey “kicking ass” against a cougar!  The donkey’s tremendous bray also alerts predators of its presence and alerts us of impending dangers.

Not all donkeys are created equal, however.  For guarding purposes, it is important to have a standard-sized donkey.  While miniature donkeys are as adorable as Eeyore, they do not have enough strength and size to defend against predators, and the ride-able mammoth donkeys are too big and slow for the job.  About the size of a horse, standard donkeys are agile and formidable.  Alongside size, however, the next important trait is character.  A petting-zoo caliber of donkey is unlikely to turn suddenly battle-fierce, whereas donkeys who are wild rescues (or close to those roots) have learned what it takes to stay alive.  And wild donkeys, by nature, are the standard size.

Our guard donkey Belle came into our lives quite serendipitously.  We had just decided that a donkey was the right match for our farm and were voicing this idea to the folks at the feedmill, when someone spoke up, “I just might know someone who has a donkey looking for a home!,” jotted down a phone number, and suggested we try giving these folks a ring.  Just the other day, they had been at the shop and mentioned the donkey.  It turned out that this family had a donkey after all, as well as a few horses, and were in the process of moving to a new location, where the donkey would not be able to join them.

Belle was known for her feisty personally.  Even the ferrier, who trims her hooves several times a year, will remark at how she bucked and resisted his care as a teenager.  I think they call it stubborn, but the trait may also be attributed to her wild-rescue parents.  Either way, coming to our farm was like coming to donkey spa, with lots of space to run around as her paddock followed that of the sheep.  Because she is the only equine on the farm, Belle adopted the sheep as her clan—braying as each new lamb is born and taking her job of guarding seriously.  Nothing bothers Belle worse than when she cannot see her sheep—that and the threat of predators.

My personal theory is that donkeys attained their name from their bray, which when you really listen sounds much more like DON-key, DON-key, than hee-haw.  While the words stay the same, Belle has shown us that there are different brays for different circumstances.  There is a bray for “I’m hungry, will ANYBODY feed me?”  There is another for “HELLO!  Someone is driving their ATV around the edge of the field and I can SEE them!”  And there is yet another one, all to its own, which means, “DANGER, there are PREDATORS!!!”

The last proved its worth one evening when Belle sounded her alarm call.  Apparently, the sheep knew that all the bellering was to warn of an impending attack and flocked tightly together in fear.  We dropped whatever it was we were doing in the garden and rushed out to the field to let the sheep into the barn, managing to just get Belle in as well as a wolf circled the edge of the perimeter fence, looking for a way in.  It was a close encounter!  Subsequently, the wolf tracks have moved from running right past our back door to diverting around the farm altogether—evidence that this natural, harmonious way to set boundaries with the local wildlife is working.

So, next time you’re over for a visit, I’m sure we’ll have our donkey on duty, and she’ll probably proclaim an audible announcement of your arrival.  She’s out there working to keep everything in order, just like the rest of us.  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

 
 

Eating Foods with Character

I know, I know, I know from working at the Cable farmer’s market since 2001 that you are on a hunt for the perfect tomato.  Red, round, shiny…and without one single blemish.  We’ve been taught from our years of shopping at grocery stores that perfect food is what we should desire and expect.  But our experience of local foods can be so much more!

If you’ve ever kept your own garden, then you will know that raising such uniform, non-blemished foods comparable to what is in the commercial market is neither easy nor reasonable.  Sometimes cucumbers get a curl at the end (due to the lack of full pollination), or a vole took a bite out of your zucchini, or your tomato has a little sun scorch on the top.  These are all simply natural parts of keeping a garden in harmony with nature, where pests are not systematically and chemically obliterated or crops drip-fed a slurry of hollow nutrients manufactured in a former ammunitions plant.  I mention the latter because the rise in NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus) fertilizers came after WWII, when the manufacturers of bombs for the war effort found that their same ingredients could be turned into spreadable formulas for agribusiness.  A little scary?

So, let’s turn around the idea of eating perfect food to eating foods with character.  I like the thought of “character” because it implies a uniqueness—a definitive sense of place, heritage, and direct link with the people who grew it.  Foods with character have a story, are often heirloom and ancient varieties, and are less common and more delightful to discover than commercially grown stock.  Here are a few key thoughts for embracing foods with character.

Flavor.  Sometimes, the more interesting heirloom tomatoes are as ugly as sin, but what hides beneath that purple-green sheath with its lumps and lopsided bumps is absolutely exquisite.  When browsing at the farmer’s market, ask your farmer what the different varieties are and what they taste like.  Sometimes there may even be samples available.  While we have all been trained to shop for the eye-candy food, the real reward of eating foods with character is their robust, luscious flavor.  The first thing that often happens to roses when they are hybrid for longer stems or better shipping qualities is that they lose their pungent fragrance (ever smelled a wild rose?).  Likewise, often the first sacrifice in selecting foods for better uniformity and packability is the loss in flavor.  Learn to embrace foods that look a little different on the outside in exchange for discovering something truly magical on the inside.

ColorEat more color is one of the best things any of us can do for our health—and by that I don’t mean eat more foods with fake coloring in them.  When embarking on purchasing Swiss Chard, choose a rainbow chard with stems that are yellow, purple, red, and green, instead of the traditional ones with white stems.  Adding more color to your plate is not only visually pleasing, but the properties of those colors often carry cancer-fighting elements or important vitamins for healthy nutrition.  Choose foods rich in color, like beets (and be sure to lightly steam and eat the greens too!), carrots, and eggplants.  Why worry if that carrot lists a bit to one side; it probably had to grow around a rock in the soil.  It will still taste just as sweet and crunchy as its straighter bunch companions.

Heirlooms.  Now, I do agree that sometimes in northern climates, you have to raise hybrids.  But the more we can support heirloom varieties (heirlooms being strains of crop that have been cultivated for a very long time), the more biodiversity we are encouraging for the planet as a whole.  If only one type of green pepper was raised everywhere in this country because it always produced a perfect green pepper, what would happen if a blight specific to that variety struck?  Supporting biodiversity by purchasing heirloom varieties of foods is an essential “voting with your dollar” practice worth embracing.  Besides, each one offers a unique eating experience.

In the world of livestock, heirlooms are called “heritage breeds.”  I raise a heritage breed of turkeys called Jersey Buff, which are cinnamon colored.  Sleeker than a traditional Giant White turkey, they dress out smaller than and not as broad-breasted as their standard alternative.  While a Giant White turkey offers that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving presentation, Jersey Buff turkeys pasture much better, have significantly fewer leg troubles, and offer a wonderfully rich flavor and texture.  There are also amazing varieties of heritage chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and so much more!  Why stick with an agribusiness standard when so many exciting choices abound?

If your mouth isn’t watering yet for a flavorful, colorful, heirloom food with character, here is a recipe to set you on the hunt—not for the perfect tomato, but for an experience all of its own.

Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta

6 meaty tomatoes, preferably a mix of red, yellow, and pink varieties, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup olive oil

2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

¼ cup fresh basil, stems removed and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1 loaf crusty bread

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat broiler in the oven.  In a large bowl, combine the chopped tomatoes with the garlic, oil, vinegar, basil, salt and pepper.  Allow mixture to stand for 10 minutes.  Cut crusty bread into ¾ inch slices.  Arrange slices on a baking sheet in a single layer.  Broil 1 to 2 minutes or until slightly browned.  Divide tomato mixture on top of the bread slices and top each with some of the cheese.  Broil for 5 minutes or until the cheese melts.  Serve immediately.

So, grab your market basket, embrace a bit of curiosity, and try some new foods with character this week.  We’re still picking our heirloom tomatoes, so maybe I’ll 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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