North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Makin' Hay

In farming, there are seldom any certainties, though a few things hold true—like baby animals in the springtime; frost in the fall; and a hot, dry, sunny stretch in early July that signals it’s time for making hay.  This is not a task just for fun or fancy.  Having enough grasses stored away for the winter is necessary for keeping our livestock fed during the snowy months.

Now, some folks have new, fancy equipment with GPS mapping in their air-conditioned tractor cab as they zip through the fields cutting and raking the heavy swards of grass.  Others churn away with the cage-like round balers that swing open to release the giant marshmallow of packed hay.  With these high-input systems, it takes one person to do what used to take a whole community.

Grandpa remembers the days when the threshing machine went from farm to farm, separating the grain from the chaff.  His job as a teenager was to guide the horses as sheaves were brought in from the field to the steaming monster of a contraption.  As the wagons filled with straw, he’d hup-hup the team to the barn, where the loose material was blown into the mow for safekeeping for winter animal bedding. 

“The worst job of all was the guys up there in the mow using pitch forks to even-out the load, with their collars turned up, their hats pulled low, and a kerchief tied around their mouth and nose,” Grandpa remembers.  “The blower pipe with the straw would shift back and forth, to distribute the material in the mow, and you’d see the guys hunch up their shoulders as the dusty stuff blew over them.  In Central Illinois, those days were hot, and everyone was covered in sweat.”

A few hearty souls can remember the ancient art of stacking loose hay in mounds outside—neatly arranged to shed both rain and snow.  A haystack was not only a building-less storage of hay, it could also be an important shelter for livestock or people during severe winter weather, as well as a play-space for children.

Our farm’s practices lie somewhere in the middle of these disparate traditions.  With a mix of equipment that came with the purchase of the farm in 1968 and bits and pieces acquired at auctions, we’re a put-put, square bale, no kicker, 1940’s to 50’s-era hay baling operation.  Grab your sunhat and a sturdy pair of gloves—it’s time to throw some bales up on the hay rack!

First, there is the chuga-chuga of our light green Owatonna haybine, as it whirs the sharp cutting teeth of the sickle bar back and forth, leaving a six-foot swath in the waving grasses.  Cutting the hay is a practice in patience and strategy because the machine cannot be maneuvered too tightly with its spinning power take-off shaft attached to the back end of the Allis D-15.  Usually, Grandpa takes several passes around the perimeter of the field, guided by Mom on the 4-wheeler watching for the dead furrow, fallen trees, or baby cranes.  Then the plot is shaved down the middle and broken into two sections, allowing for large figure-eight maneuvers instead of creating a tight circle in the middle.

The haybine rattles all day and sometimes into the encroaching darkness to get the job done.  This last week, in good old get-it-done German fashion, Mom refused to quit until the field was cut.  “No sense hauling it back out there for that one little patch!” she said determinedly.  So the last few swatches were cut by the headlights of the golf cart, as I warded off swarms of mosquitoes from the edge of the field.

“Really, can’t we call it quits!?”  But being miserable doesn’t get the hay in, and as they say, you have to make hay while the sun shines.  This was Wednesday, and rain was predicted on Saturday.  The hay would need Thursday to dry, followed by a mad rush of raking and baling on Friday before to dew settled in for the evening.

Some years, our “bigger” tractors are tied up cutting or baling, and we have to pull out the little Allis B to pull the gangly red rake (which dwarfs the antique tractor).  Known as a “side delivery,” the rake rolls the hay to the side, allowing several smaller rows of cutting to be glumped together, while turning the wet underside up to the sun for proper drying.  Too much moisture is the bane of baling hay.  Pack wet hay into a bale and the decomposition process will turn the grass dangerously hot—even to the point of spontaneously combusting and burning your barn to the ground!

Ok, so the hay is good and dry and ready to bale—it’s time to call in the troops!  Mom studiously aims the John Deere square baler over the wind row of raked hay.  Click-a, click-a, click-a, WHUMP.  Metal teeth pick up the hay and feed it into the auger.  Fang-like tines pull it into the chute, where the heavy plunger pounds it into place.  As the bale steadily grows, a counter measures the length, then Carunk!  Needles thrust upwards to the knotter, securing the compressed hay in two tight lengths of twine, and the bale is pushed up the exit chute towards the waiting hands on the hayrack.  Click-a, Click-a, Click-a, the next bale is begun.

That is, if everything is working properly.  Baling time is always fraught with mishaps, sheared pins, and breakdowns.  You know you’re in for an adventure when the baler comes with a tool box bolted to the top!  Optimists, aren’t they!  One year, I had to make a mad dash into town to buy a whole box of shear pins just to make it through that day’s baling before the rains came.  The hardware people simply chuckled knowingly.  “Ah, one of those kinds of days, isn’t it.”

There is also an art to stacking.  The sometimes slippery surface of the wagon deck rumbles and bounces beneath you as you lean precariously forward, reaching for the bale.  The first layer is fairly straightforward—five bales wide in a brick-like pattern that helps lock each row in place.  We do our best to keep the stack neat and square, so it stays on the wagon despite bumps and curves.  One year of riding on top of a pile of bales as they tumbled off the side of the hay wagon was more than enough adventure for me!

As the stacks get higher, they can work as an overgrown set of stairs for a while, until the front person simply has to throw the 40-pound bales up to the person waiting on top.  Towering five or six levels high, the wagon is unhitched and hauled to the barn then replaced by the next empty rack.  Then the bales need to be individually loaded onto the “elevator”—a rattly conveying system that drags the bales up into the mow.  Usually, Grandpa and I are loading the elevator, while Mom and Kara scramble high up in the baking loft, catching and stacking the bales in place as they tumble off the top of the elevator.  Covered in chaff and debris, we’re all ready for a cold drink and a much-needed shower.

There’s no way around it—haying is a hot and dusty job.  With enough rain, sun, and a bit of luck, we’ll be out making the highly nutritious second crop hay in September.  Have you ever made hay?  Maybe this week you’ll spy someone put-putting on their baler or come across a field dotted with round bales.  It’s that time of year, for sure.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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

 

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On Being Neighborly

On these blustery cold days and shivery cold nights, sometimes we can feel a bit cooped up in our homes, huddling by the wood stove with a dog or two close at hand for added warmth.  Chores begin by encasing oneself with copious amounts of wooly or downy armor against the frigid winds—leaving only one’s peering eyes with frost-edged lashes open to the elements.  Even the chickens huddle as puffed-up balls in the coops, their taloned toes firmly tucked inside their down. 

Winter can create its own sense of isolation, as if everything outside stops, hunkers down, and waits for the warmth of springtime to reawaken.  I think the “settling in” of winter happens to everyone up here in the Northland, burst open at times by the overwhelming sense of “cabin fever” needing release. 

Things have been quiet on the farm and at Farmstead Creamery & Café as well.  This allows the luxury of leisurely chats with the brave clients who do venture forth amidst the ice or wind.  Except, that is, for the days when cabin fever reigns and the Creamery is unexpectedly packed by community member who simply cannot stay inside any longer.

Back in the day, cabin fever was tempered by the knowledge that winter was the time for “visiting.”  Farm families would finish up the morning chores, hitch the team to a sleigh, and go off to spend the day with neighbors—share a hearty meal, play games, tell stories, or bring over a favorite portable instrument and dance together.

Grab your fiddle and grab your bow

Circle round and Do-si-do

First to the right and then to the left

Then to the one that you love best.

 

Get outa the way for old Dan Tucker

He’s too late to get his supper

Supper’s over and dinner is a cookin’

Old Dan Tucker just a-stands there lookin’.

Having something to do together was helpful as well—maple sugaring in the early spring, splitting wood in late autumn, quilting bees in between.  And even if a particular project wasn’t apparent, bringing over a fresh pie or needing to borrow a cup of sugar could make an excellent excuse for spending the rest of the afternoon in good company.

Today, as I drive home from an evening event, I can’t help but notice that the glowing rectangle of wide-screen TVs appears to be the company we keep in wintertime.  No wonder cabin fever abounds!  Turn off that chatterbox and get neighborly again.  Here are a few practical ideas to get you started.

Invite a friend on a snowshoe hike in the woods (or other quiet recreational activity).  Few people like going out alone in the winter, but with a friend there’s plenty of thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams to share as you enjoy the outdoors together.

Find a way to swap work.  Everyone has a project they’ve been meaning to get to but it just works better with a helper or two.  Whether this is painting a room, finishing a quilt, cleaning out the garage, or hanging new curtains, offer to help a neighbor with a project if they’ll help you with one as well.  You’ll both be active, have company, and feel good about making progress on the “to do” list.

Offer to help an elderly neighbor.  Winter is tough for everyone, but it’s hardest for our elders.  If you can, lend a hand with shoveling walkways, pick up a few extra things for them in town, or just stop by to give them company.  If you are an elder, invite folks over for a hot drink and “a little something” while they help make the winter a little easier for you.  Remind folks that it’s good to have a break from the normal business of their lives.

And, of course, there is the tried-and-true method of stopping by with a freshly baked homemade pie.  In farm country, you can’t hope to go visiting without either bringing or receiving something to eat (if not both).  Sharing nourishment is part of sharing the camaraderie and trust that is part of neighborliness.

Not convinced?  Well, you’re certainly welcome to improvise your own methods for breaking cabin fever with the folks who live near you.  Throw a party, host a house concert, pick a day each week to meet at the kitchen table with tea and a deck of cards—whatever appeals to you as good, old-fashioned fun together.  If you find yourself wondering who some of your neighbors are, winter might be an opportune time to find out.  Remember, hot pies or cookies with a smile open doors.

Sometimes we get to know our neighbors by accident.  Recently, friends of ours whom live down the road a bit were heading in to town for a live performance.  There were four tickets but three attendants (the fourth was ill), so they called us up to see if we’d like to come along.  On the dark and wintry ride into town, they recollected their first adventure on the farm.

“We like driving down the back roads.  We knew this had a “dead end” sign on it, but we thought, why not?  So here we were on this gravel road, and we meet this tall, elderly gentleman walking a little white dog.  We waved and he waved and we kept on going.

“When we got to the corner, we could see that the road ended in a farm and didn’t go any farther, so we turned around and came back.  But along the way, we met your Grandpa with the little white dog again.  We apologized for bothering their place, but he said, “Oh no, not at all, come on down and see my farm.”  So we turned around again and learned more about what was going on back here—we had no idea.  Who knew there were folks still farming out here?”

So turn off the TV, kick up your heels, and shake off those winter-time blues with folks who are just as shut inside with this cold and wind as you.  Maybe you don’t know them yet, and maybe you do, but being neighborly certainly doesn’t hurt one’s spirits during the dark time of year.  We can each create greater cheer together as we muster on until the warming days of spring.  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 Fireside Christmas

There is no other time of year that is quite like Christmas.  The family gathers from across the country to sit around the farm table, the stockings are hung with care, and children’s hearts are filled with the wonder of the season.  Saint Nicholas is coming, and soon there will be cookies, hot cider, and roast turkey to share.  The old board games are brought out of the closet, and everyone laughs over differences in opinion on the rules governing card games that are dusted off for the gathering.  There’s firewood to split, winding trails to snowshoe, hills to sled, and fresh balsam wreaths to make—let alone the harvesting of the Christmas tree.

I can remember one Christmas, which was heavily snowed, trudging along the edge of the field, where our house now stands, in search of the perfect little Charlie Brown Christmas tree (it was our family’s principle to take a tree that was too crowded so its cousins could grow healthy and strong).  The snow was so deep—and I was so small—that it seemed we would hardly make it back to the farmhouse at all, wading bravely with the little handsaw gripped in my purple mitten.  It had grown quite dark, but Grandpa pointed up to the sky in the East.

“Look,” he urged.  “What is that?”  There was a large, round glow just coming over the barren tree limbs across the creek.

“Is it a house light or a town?” Kara and I ventured.  It glowed something like the barnyard light, only much bigger and brighter.

“No, it’s the moon,” Grandpa corrected.  And sure enough, as we brought the snow-encrusted pine tree home, the full moon rose up into the sky to light our way—sharing a bit of Christmas magic by casting every snowdrift into mounds of crystalline shimmers.  A Great Horned owl hooted some distance off, reminding us that nature was not completely asleep.

For me, Christmas memories are always wrapped up within the green and red package of the homestead and much of that revolves around the large, fieldstone fireplace.  In the early days, before my grandparents bought the farm from the original homesteaders, the only heat source came from a set of wood stoves that connected to a central, brick chimney that poked its snout out through the middle of the roof.  The largest stove had sat between the living room and dining room, and grates in the ceiling let a little heat up to the bedrooms on the floor above.  By the time the farm was sold, the wood stoves had been replaced by an oil-burning furnace.

But Mom remembers as a young girl wanting to have a fireplace.  She even gave Grandpa one of those popcorn popping pans with a long handle that is held over an open fire as a Christmas gift.  As the popcorn kernels heat up, you shake the contraption to keep them stirred and evenly heated until they stop popping and there is hot, yummy puff with a little smoky smell as an extra perk.  Surely, this would drop a hint!

And perhaps it did because soon construction was underway to build a fieldstone chimney on the south face of the living room.  Whole, heavy, authentic local stone (most of it likely hauled from the fields) were collected by two area Norwegian bachelors who had a special corner on the area market for fieldstone fireplaces.  And, after a few initial mishaps and a good bit of grunting, the farmhouse was transformed by the sound of the crackle and hiss of an open fire, with a ledge to sit upon in front and rock shelves for mantle space.

This is where my sister and I perched cradling mugs of frothy hot chocolate after a day of sledding or dangled our hand-knit stockings in hopes of an overnight gift visit.  We knew there would be oranges, puzzles to share with family, Grandma’s Dickens village to set up on the porch amidst carefully wrapped gifts, and lots of old family stories and remembrances.

Beside the fieldstone hearthside was an excellent place to set up card tables for a rousing game of Sorry!, Backgammon, Clue, or Pictionary.  But it was equally a peaceful place to snuggle up with one of the dogs and read a book or watch the snow drift lazily from the sky outside.  After three days of toasty fires, the stones above the hearth grew warm to the touch and resonated their own comforting, radiant heat.  The fireplace might dwarf the room but it certainly didn’t dwarf the layers of memories that were made by its side.

Our strongest memories come from smells, and Christmas is full of memorable fragrances, in part because it is equally full of good food!  It has been our family’s tradition to explore a different ethnic theme for Christmas Eve.  One time we had Mexican fare with corn husk-wrapped tamales, another featured a Mediterranean theme with lasagna Napoletana, and this year we plan for a Swedish twist with meatballs and Yulekaka.  In the mornings, there were farm-fresh eggs, Danish cringle sent by those who could not make it to the farm for the holiday, and succulent citrus.  The spicy tang of mulled cider, the heady richness of dipping chocolate, or the sharp invitation of almond extract are somehow inseparable with Christmastime on our farm.  Take some time this week to remember fond Christmas’s past or build new memories with loved ones over a bowl of cookie dough or your own over-the-fire popcorn popper.

As this year comes to a close, we think on its many gifts amidst the trials and learning points.  One of the best gifts of all is to give of one’s time to family, to friends, and to community—building fond memories by the hearthside.  Wishing for you and yours a blessed Christmas, with hopes for a healthy and satisfying New 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

 

 
 

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

 

 
 

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

 
 
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