North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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Sudden Storms

The day even started hot, muggy, clingy.  A steady breeze helped keep the climbing heat from being entirely unbearable, but this was going to be one of those days where just keeping the animals alive and in the shade would be the major accomplishment of the day. 

We threw on sunhats and drug what felt like miles of electric fencing beneath the barnyard maples, red pines, and the spruces along the lane so that ducks, lambs, and ewes could have some shaded reprieve.  Less-than-pleased teenaged turkeys were marched into sheltered, shaded nooks by the chokecherry bushes, and we even spread a rug over the penthouse for the celebrity chickens at Farmstead Creamery to cast a bit more shadow.

And then we filled water buckets and filled waterers and filled kiddy pools, hosing off the pigs.  The heat and humidity was absolutely relentless, with heat indexes in the 100’s of degrees.  Finally, by 6:00 p.m., we had crested the wave of nature’s convection oven and celebrated by heading to the lake for a swim and a picnic supper.

Yet despite these relaxing moments, part of us still knew that such heat and energy meant that storms would be coming.  Just rain, we hoped, no drama…but that wasn’t likely.  The evening was still muggy and close, so it was impossible to batten down anything tight.  A cloud bank was encroaching on the sunset, which left us hoping that something would break the weather for a better northwoods day tomorrow.

It was about 2:00 in the morning when the first wave of rain hit.  Just rain, gentle, lapping at the south side of the house.  But behind the sprinkle, the sky was lit with strobe lights, flashes beating everywhere to the north and west—streaking in all directions.  I trundled down the dark stairs to grab our trusty IPod-touch for monitoring the aquaponics and keeping tabs on the weather.  Who cares what the predictions and hourly guesses might be, I wanted to see the radar!

In a great arch, sweeping from Minnesota to Canada, a thick band of yellow, orange, and red was headed our way.  The warning issued included penny-sized hail and 60-mile-an-hour wind gusts.  After surviving the last major wind event the evening of the PBS filming, which had tried to run off with the chicken tractors and tore pieces out of trees, this didn’t sound like something we’d want to find ourselves caught in way out in the pasture.

It was dark, no moon, and still thick with heat and humidity.  We threw on pants and shoes and began the mad hatch-battening that precedes dangerous storms on the farm.  Snagging the trusty old farm truck, we pulled up to the wood shed and began throwing T-posts into the back, the infernally heavy fence post driver, and a wad of baling twine. 

Pat-Pat, the first few raindrops splatted against my glasses.  I dashed through the lamb pen to turn off the fence energizer while Mom rounded the corner from behind with the truck.  Out in the middle of the pasture, the strobe light lightning was flashing everywhere, blinking with blinding brightness our frenzied work. 

In the back of my mind, I could hear the NOA weather radio voice saying, “Remember, lightening can kill.  If you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.”

“I don’t like it out here!” was Mom’s version of the situation.  “Where is my string?”  I grabbed another T-post and began pounding it at an angle to one of the corners of the chicken tractors so they could be cross-tied and anchored.

The pre-storm gust hadn’t quite reached us yet as we lashed layers of baling twine from tractor to post, threw our gear into the back end of the pickup, and hurtled over the bumpy terrain back to the barnyard.  Kara was there, closing the sides on the lamb barn.  It was a mad dash to throw anything loose into a building, wedge the new people door on the farmhouse garage (with no latch yet) shut, roll down the sides of the high tunnel, and stuff any lightweight lawn furniture or precious garden art objects into safe nooks and crannies.

“Come on Speckles,” I chided while Mom was cranking down the sides of the aquaponics greenhouse.  Little miss chicken thought we’d camp outside in the penthouse that night, but that wasn’t going to be a good idea with the oncoming storm.  With little ceremony, I opened the hutch, grabbed the sleepy hen, and stuffed her into the sheltered room above.  And then we also grabbed the rug before it became a veritable sponge.

With the threat of hale, we tried our best to squeeze as many vehicles into shelters as the rain began to pour.  Others, we moved away from the trees, remembering the limb-throwing events of the last storm.  Again, the NOA weather radio voice reappeared, “Damaging wind and hail.  Take immediate shelter in a central room in the lowest level of your home.”  Yes, I know, but how many farmers actually get to do this?

As the downpour instantly soaked my hair and shirt just running from the garage to the house, I was feeling quite relieved to have started with tying down the chicken tractors first when we did.  Huddled together back at our house, damp and panting, hoping we had everything tied down or squirreled away, we watched the radar.  A deep red finger had dipped down into the Chequamegon National Forest, heading our way.  But in that finger was a small gap, like an exclamation point—a gap which neatly drifted right over the farm.

I did hear hail on the skylight, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds.  Torrential rains followed, and some winds.  This morning, the air feels refreshed and the dry soils moistened.  Hopefully, we won’t find any damages to the farm or livestock this morning, making our two-in-the-morning scramble worth the effort and risk. 

Sudden storms can pop up at any time on the farm.  We’ve seen them head straight north in the middle of butchering chicken, watched frightful soup-green banks pelt in from the west while making hay, fled deep-blue banks from the north, and survived tempests blown in from the east.  But whichever way they come, angry summer storms can wreak terrible damages on homestead farms.  This round, we responded in time…and got lucky.  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

Monsoon Season

The first couple of years after we moved up to the farm full-time offered classic Northwoods summers—cool, moist mornings, a little rain in the afternoons, and maybe three days of 80 degrees.  There really wasn’t any need for air conditioning, and we hardly ever needed to water the garden.  But by the third year, a new normal had settled into the Northland—eight years of drought. 

Each summer, the drought would start earlier.  One year, it started in August, the next in July, then June, until it even started in April.  Imagine a year with hardly any April showers!  It was an environmental process entirely terrifying for a family that was trying to build a livelihood from tending the land.  What if the wells ran dry?  How would we maintain the animals?  Pastures dried up, trees suffered, and insect pests we’d never seen before gnawed their way through the land.

This year, however, things have shifted again.  Our long, cold winters reminded local old-timers of yesteryears, with piles of snow everywhere and prolonged cold snaps that made trees pop in the night.  Not too many years ago, St. Patrick’s Day was 80 degrees and we planted the garden in April.  What a contrast this year!

This spring was the classic, “Don’t put out anything until Memorial Day” that Grandma used to caution.  Soils stayed cool well into June, leaving everyone feeling their gardens are running a month behind schedule.  But at least we can say that we haven’t had to water this year!

Out of the polar vortex of winter and spring, we’ve instead climbed into what I’ve been teasingly referring to as “Monsoon Season.”  If the weather is predicting even a 20% chance, we’ll get hammered.  Sprinkles, rashes of rain, and downpours.  Lots of downpours.  Yesterday, while cleaning chicken coops, Mother Nature was having a grand time playing peek-a-boo with me. 

Now I’m sunny, now I’m raining, now I’m sunny, now I’m raining.

This spring, the creek that passes under our lane rose so high, we began to fear it might creep over the roadway or erode beneath.  It’s entirely fortuitous that we’re experimenting with plastic mulch this year in the garden or most of the beautiful soil may have been washed away.  I’ve hardly even touched the water in the rain barrels except for filling the ducks’ kiddy pool, and lately chore time has been pushed around based on when the latest gully-washer eases.

I’m not complaining—this is exponentially better than a drought—but it does seem that the new normal is anything but normal.  The other day, the morning air smelled cool and crisp of September, another morning feels like October, and then another like April.  Perhaps we’re just having a bit of English weather lately:  moderate with moisture often.  Can you see the different greens of Ireland yet?

But not having to water the garden comes with another tradeoff:  not being able to make hay.  This week, we’re going for it, as there finally appears to be a four-day dry stretch.  Typically, we’d be hoping to make hay near the end of June before the grasses have headed out.  But this year, there wasn’t any chance of that happening. 

Off in the forecast, there would seem to be a break coming, but then as the days drew near, NOPE, they’d change their minds and we’d be back to more rain.

The longer the hay stands before cutting, the less prime the nutrients, but there’s no worth to cut hay that’s been rained on.  It molds and composts within the bale, heating up to such high temperatures that barns will go up in flames.  We had a few wet bales once, which we tore apart that same afternoon and laid out in the lawn to cool before feeding right away.  We had to wear gloves to keep from being burned—that’s how hot those bales became so quickly.

On the other hand, the ducks haven’t minded the monsoon season one bit, dancing and prancing and preening in the rain.  The month-old ducklings are still getting used to it, running into their shelter in fear of the falling sky.  But once they’ve shed their golden fuzz for oiled, white feathers, their fear of rain droplets will be quite abated. 

“It’s good duck weather” Grandpa would say as puddles form everywhere.  Little kids on farm tours have loved the puddles too…though not the parents.  I wonder if I’ll be hatching tadpoles in some of them soon—the puddles have become such permanent farm fixtures this year.

I don’t know what it was about last autumn, but the weather seemed to wait for me to be all the way out in the pasture tending the turkeys in their tractor pens and then POUR!  I’d hunch up, crunch up, squint my eyes as the rain dripped down my face.  And then once I’d have everything packed up in the golf cart to head back, the skies would lighten and the rain would stop.  Really, was this some type of game?

This year, there’s less of a sense of tease and more of an “I’ll just rain whenever I feel like it.”  Two Mondays ago, we were butchering our first batch of chickens.  Huge storm clouds were forming that afternoon, sailing to the south, then the north, then the south.

“Plenty of room in the sky over there!” I told the clouds, then blew at them in a humorous attempt to keep them away (as if one little puff could do such a thing).  “You have to wait until we’re done!”  A couple of sprinkles was the sky’s reply, but the deluge did wait to hit the farm at nightfall, after we were cleaned up and the equipment was stored away.  At least nature can have some courtesy…when she feels like it.

Will our little monsoon continue, or will we find ourselves with another dry August?  It’s hard to say at this point.  If the new normal is anything but normal, then this year will remain a weather wildcard.  But hopefully all this moisture has filled the lakes and worked to replenish aquifers.  After this week’s haying, though, I’ll probably be reaching for the raincoats again.  But listen skies, let me get that hay crop in the barn first, ok?!  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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Wishing for Rain

It’s been about a month now of “too much of a good thing”—clear blue skies with a few puffy little clouds, a gentle or blustery breeze, and no rain to spoil your canoe trip or picnic with friends.  While all these sunny days have been great for the seasonal visitors, it’s getting to the point of desperation for the local farmers.

There are plenty of perks to farming sandy soils.  During wet times, the excess water drains easily.  Combined with rich organic matter, the soils has loft, breathability, and is worked easily.  But when things turn dry, sandy soils dry right up with it.  One day’s pleasant rain can simply be gone by the next with a beaming sun and a brisk south wind.  Without plenty of mulch or good leaf cover, the soil will soon be frightfully dry a LONG ways down.

This is why sand-loving plants and trees develop penetrating tap roots so that dry times are not nearly as stressful for them.  But a towering pine tree certainly has more means of surviving a drought without assistance than a little eggplant could ever hope to accomplish.  Pathetic, drooping or wilted leaves are sure signs that the sun and the wind are gaining the upper hand in the garden.

It used to be that irrigating the garden wasn’t much of a concern in the Northwoods.  Before our trio moved to the farm full-time, Grandma would plant winter squashes and a few other odds and ends in the modest garden behind the farmhouse.  The hearty seedlings received only sporadic attention until it was time for harvest.  Somehow, they made it through the hot and sometimes dry August stretch on their own.

This was the way of things for the first two years when we began the lengthy task of revitalizing the homestead.  Sprinkle a bit with the watering can to get the little plants going, and there was no need to irrigate.  It would rain, quite consistently, every third day.  The clouds would build up, a gently shower would ensue during the afternoon, and then the leaves would pata-drip with a musical lilt into the evening.  Sometimes the rains slipped through during the night, leaving the soil damp, soft, and fragrant by morning.

Then, on the third year, the drought started.  Perhaps you didn’t hear about it because it was quite regional and didn’t affect the corn and soy growing regions further downstate.  But we felt it here.  Eight years of it.

Each year, the drought started earlier.  The first year, it really hit in August.  The second year, it started in July.  By the peak, things were already getting dry in April or May and staying that way.  Water tables dropped.  Many folks we knew who lived on the lakes nearby had their shallower wells run dry, which meant the inconvenience of having to haul in water and do ones laundry in town.  But the thought of having the well run dry at the farm, with all the needs for the animals, was a terrifying and very present thought.

Eight years of drought trains you well, as a sustainably-minded farmer.  Soon we had a fleet of rain barrels under each eave, to catch what little bit of rain did fall.  We knew that irrigating the garden to keep the crops alive and producing was imperative, but we wanted to be as responsible about it as possible.

Instead of relying on our well, which was already held in demand for the animals and personal needs, we added a sand point near the garden that draws water from a higher table that is part of the wetlands bordering the east end of the farm.  While this water is not suitable for drinking, it is actually much better for the garden than well water.  Nutrient rich and not as cold, the water from the sand point has proved an extremely important part of the garden’s success.

Overhead sprinklers that shoot sprays of water across the garden are fraught with sustainability problems.  Most of the blue gold is lost to evaporation before it even gets to the grounds, and more is lost from evaporating off the plant surfaces that it coats.  Too much watering on leaves that are then stressed by bright sun at the same time leads to mildew infestations, tip burn, and other health problems for plants.  If plants begin to suffer from these ailments, they are more susceptible to attacks by insects or funguses.  In effect, top watering can cause more harm than good for your garden.

The best place to put irrigation water during hot, dry, windy periods is right where the plants need it—in the ground, just under the surface.  We were able to do this by burying lines of soaker hose irrigation (a product made from recycled tires); a somewhat awkward assembly of pressure reducer, anti-backflow valve, water filter, and hose Ts; and a Medusa-esque array of garden hoses.  With two lengths of soaker hose in each wide raised bed, we can move the irrigation system around within the garden to water specific rows as needed.  Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, or zucchinis (which require a higher use of water in order to produce crop) can receive more frequent irrigation attention than slower-forming carrots or onions.

But even with the most sustainably-oriented irrigation system, nothing compares to a good, steady, soaker of a rainy day.  We need such a day now—or two or three or four.  Just tonight, as I was digging potatoes, the soil just crumbled into dust, some of it blowing away in the wind.  The pasture is hard—baked dry by the sun—and the grass refuses to grow.  No grass means we’re scrambling to find places for the sheep to graze.  And no grass also means likely no second-crop hay to help us get through the winter for feeding the sheep.  With everyone else in the area also feeling the effects of the dry weather, there won’t be much hay to purchase from other folks either.

While the long-range forecast for this week is hardly hopeful, I am still wishing for rain—for our farm, for the forest, for the lakes, for the water table, for us all.  What are your most memorable rain stories?  What are the dry stories?  Take some time to share them with someone this week.  Either way, it can be too much of a good thing…or not enough.  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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Storm Stories

If you’re tucked back in the woods, sometimes it’s hard to see the weather coming.  If you’re on the lake, you might have a great view of impending clouds (especially if they’re coming your way across the water).  But many people who have visited the farm for longer periods of time realize that our fields offer a unique view of the building and changing of storm clouds.  This is a good thing, since having fair warning of hazardous weather can be quite critical for farming!

Why do farmers always begin by talking about the weather?  Too much wet and you can’t get into the fields to work.  Too much dry and the crops may fail.  Too cold and freak frosts can damage sensitive plants or prolonged bouts stunt tomatoes and peppers.  Too much hot and many plants bolt or animals suffer from heat exhaustion.  Hail and wind can wreak havoc, as well.  The list never ends!

This spring, the weather’s bipolar tendencies have made life quite interesting, to say the least.  Loads of snow, gusty winds, hot and dry, wildfires, soaking rain that lasts for days, chilly dampness, and steamy sunniness all in a month’s time can send farmers like us into a dizzy dance to keep-up.  Open the windows to the chicken coop, then close them again.  Cover the portable shelters for our poultry with tarps, then uncover them.  The sheep dash out to play, then dash in again.  Mild bouts of spotty rain aren’t too much of a concern, but when the weather turns foul, that’s when farmers get worried.

Every farm has storm stories.  Invariably, I’m out in the worst of the fray, trying to save plants and animals from harm, getting drenched and a little bit terrified.  Once everything is safe and secure and I finally make it back indoors…the rain lessens, the thunder ceases, and soon I’m back out opening up the hatches I’d just battened down.  When the clouds change their shapes in springtime to rise puffy as cauliflower heads—that’s when we keep our eyes out for the next storm.

The dark underbelly of the clouds has much to tell about their temperament.  Most times, they float in from a westerly direction, across the long North Field with the rain dragging behind them.  But this spring, nearly all the storms have trailed up from the south, popping over the green ridge of pine trees like a prowling lion in the Sahara grasses.  Often our eyes are glued to the online radar images, watching the progress and growth of storms.  We’ve learned over the years that getting a head start makes a difference for storm preparation.

I remember in the early years of farming for us—before we’d equipped ourselves with headlamps and generators—dashing out in the middle of the night in a storm to quick close down doors and windows in the barn or coop, scooting along the edge of the garage bent near double.  I didn’t want to be the tallest object in the barn yard!  Lightening flashes, and the black-and-white-lit image of the top half of a balsam tree lays like a corpse across the yard, broke clean off its trunk beside the wood shed.  The smell of wet raincoats, mud, and the feel of water between my toes in my sneakers mingles with the tingling in the air from the storm’s power.

Turkeys are especially prone to mishaps in storms.  They gawk at the clouds, facing upwards towards the rain drops.  Without proper precautions, turkeys can literally drown because the rain runs into their nostrils as they look skyward!  So often I find myself with a long stick, herding turkeys inside amidst pelting raindrops.  Last summer, the rushing gust of a storm’s front caught me just as I was in the turkey pen.  Looking up, I saw a great tree behind the barn rip in half—the top thrown as if a toy to the side.  I herded the turkeys even faster that time.

The old saying goes that if you place a horse, a cow, a pig, and a sheep on a hill, the sheep will always be the one struck by lightening.  This may have a connection with the buildup of static electricity in their wool coats, but no one knows for certain.  Either way, we are always careful to bring the sheep into the barn when a thunderstorm strikes.  But apparently you don’t always need clouds to have lightening!  One day while cleaning dishes at the kitchen sink in the farm house, I looked out the window into the field.  From the blue sky came a small bolt of lightening, right down to the middle of the field, followed by a poof of smoke.  I didn’t imagine it, honest!  I even found the scorched spot of turf later that day!

But our queen of storm stories comes from two summers ago while making hay.  Yes, yes, yes, you are supposed to make hay when the sun shines, and it had been shining!  There were no predictions of storms for a three-day stretch.  The grass was cut, raked, and dried—the exact time you don’t want it to rain on the hay because the moisture will ruin the crop.  That afternoon it was hot, muggy, and rough work for baling and stacking on the wagon under the July sun.

Then we looked up to the west to see a pea-soup-green wall coming our way—fast.  The leading edge curled upwards like a massive dog tongue, any sunshine behind it completely obliterated.  We revved the tractor and tried desperately to crank out as many bales of hay as we could before the beast struck.

Sarah, our intern at the time, and I frantically pulled a load into the Red Barn just as the leading winds hurled into the farm.  As fast as we could run, we pelted out into the field to tie down the chicken tractors, pounding T-posts into the hard earth with the vigor of 19th-Century railway workers.  The lightening flashed, and I imagined myself as the perfect lightening rod in the middle of the pasture as the hammering rains descended like a gray wall, blanketing the farm in water.  The wind howled, carrying with it tarps and buckets.

Sarah remembers thinking, “I’m going to blow away!” as she chased the last of the laying hens into their movable summer coops.  Then she looked at me clamoring after a tumbling tarp and thought, “No, you’re going to blow away!”  We hurried to close the walls on greenhouses, the windows on my studio yurt, and to save the turkeys.  Out in the field (about 10 bales from being finished), a mound of hay jammed in the baler, a pin sheared, and Kara left the rig in the field to pull in the last of the finished bales.  The rest would have to be sacrificed.

We drug ourselves into the house that evening, sweaty from the day’s labors and covered in hay chaff, drenched and windblown and a bit out of breath…only to discover that the power was out so there was no shower and likely no supper.  Oh the life of farming, it’s not for the faint of heart!

This week, take some time to remember your favorite (or at least most memorable!) storm stories with friends and family.  Stay safe, 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. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 
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