North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Extreme Chores

Bundled in 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, hat, gloves, and face scarf, my glasses iced over by steamy breath, facing winter chores can become daunting even before leaving the back door.

External faucets are frozen closed, so we fill five-gallon buckets in the utility sink with warm water for the pigs, lifting them high over the lip of the sink, then trundling them out to the orange sled waiting outside.  That hearty, toboggan-long sled sure does get a workout in wintertime, hauling water, hay, feed, fodder, and wood this way and that along our paths and trails across the barnyard.

These paths are packed tightly where we’ve trodden them down for months, but should a stray foot wander off—poof—you’ve sunk in above your knee.  This is especially hazardous when the trails have drifted over and it’s hard to know exactly where that curve in the path used to be.  It is equally obvious when you’ve guessed incorrectly.

Shoveling has been a daily practice for chores this winter.  As rigorous as it can be, I wonder that some form of shoveling isn’t featured at the Olympics.  The bend, the scoop, the throw…and then the tamping and scraping for the sticky snow that won’t let go of the shovel.  There’s the deck, the paths, the stoops in front of the garages, and a long stretch in front of the barn to keep the banks at bay.  Either the land has risen or the barn was always built on land a little downhill from parts of the barnyard, and spring flooding can be a real issue.  Every year, we hope for a slow melt that will allow the snows to sink gracefully into the aquifer rather than running in a torrent down the gravel road, washing out the culvert, or pooling like a lake inside the barn.  While I’m not quite ready for spring and its mounting workload, a little break from the snow and bitter cold would be welcome.

Shovel, shovel, shovel.  The high tunnel where we raise vining tomato plants in the summer is half buried in a drift.  I can only see the top portion of the door.  But with the huge pre-Birkie storm on the way, we had to make room for the new snow to be able to slide off the top and not continue to crush the arching structure.  Just wading out to the high tunnel was hip-deep in places, past the row of wind-breaking spruces sheltering mounds of dismembered pinecone tidbits that the squirrels have left.

It’s tricky shoveling out a plastic-film sided greenhouse.  Dig along the sides and the snow still lingering on the top slips and slides and flops down in your trench, so you get to shovel it out again.  And it’s soooooo easy to poke a hole in the side with the corner of the scoop, just as you hit a chunk of ice that refuses to give way.  We’ll have a few nicks to patch in the spring, but at least the snow has a place to go, rather than collapsing our precious growing structure.

Drifts on rooftops have grown dangerously heavy—two feet deep in places!  In the news are featured stories of barn and outbuildings collapsing under the tremendous weight.  Borrowing a roof rake from a neighbor, we take turns chopping and scraping, trying to make a dent in the snowload.  The long and rambling woodshed (originally used to store horse-drawn farm machinery because it was easy to back into) was the first on the list. 

There was no chance at a sudden rush of releasing snow as happens on the south side of the barn roof—rumbling and thundering and smashing in an avalanche against the side of the machine shed beside it.  So it was chop, chop and chop, chop at the drift above, wading through the snow.  The stacking pile below now leaves but a modest gap between the roofline and the ground!  The woodshed is very nearly just a tunnel!  Seriously, it’s looking rather like a polar expedition around here, rather than a farm.

My other running joke lately is that we’re farming in the trenches.  Veritable high-sided louge tracks for the sled are guarded by great mounds of snow banks.  Sometimes it’s hard to know where Mom or Kara are in the farmyard because you can’t see over the sides of the trenches, even though the packed trails raise my shoulders higher than the top of the five-foot woven wire chicken fence.

Just a few days ago, chores turned into an experience of quicksand.  It was evening and quite dark except for the brilliant pin-pricks of stars above.  I entered the frosty-sided chicken coop to sadly find that one of my ladies had died (likely in a fight with another hen over nesting box territory…sometimes freaky things can happen with chickens).  I carefully wrapped her in a feed sack and endeavored to take her out to the old pump house for safe keeping until we could dispose of her properly.

The pump house still has the old hand pump in it but the hand-dug well collapsed years ago thanks to a raucous population of woodchucks.  Long past its days as a milk house, we use the shed to store garden tools, bins, extra boxes, and odds and ends (there always seems to be an endless supply of odds and ends on a farm!).  With my poor deceased chicken wrapped in a feed sack in hand, I faced the silver-sided pump house.  Between me and my destination lay the cliff of snow shoveled away from the front of the barn.  It seemed like rock climbing gear might be necessary, but I bravely embarked up the face, over the edge, and then sank nearly out of sight into the soft drift on the other side.

Hollering for help was to no avail, for the rest of the crew was well off at the Red Barn with belloring rams and the donkey.  Would they hear my snow-muffled cries?  Nope.  So now what?  My left leg twisted behind me, my right leg straight down to the waist in fluff, my arms holding the chicken, this was feeling like a predicament.  I tried to push with one hand against the snow, but it was so soft it too only sunk deep without resistance.  What if I simply disappeared without a trace?  How long would it take someone to find me?

I set the chicken aside with a poof of white, icy fluff and tried rolling on my back, then from side to side, in an effort to pack down some of the snow.  What I really needed was a set of snowshoes, but those were quite a ways away…all the way back at the house.  So, my mind raced, how could I make instant snowshoes to get out of this drowning mess?  It’s amazing the odd, scary, and funny things you mind can think up when you’re completely stuck in a snowbank.

Managing to pull one knee underneath me, I braced all of my left lower leg and foot into one long knee-to-toe “foot,” then drug my right knee out of the drift.  One bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken, the next bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken.  The process was awkward, to say the least, but I managed to reach the shed (thankfully the door opened inward), deposit my package, and wade back to the safety of the shoveled walk, plopping down panting.

Mom and Kara rounded the bend with a sled full of hay bales, their water buckets clanging.  “What has been taking you so long?”

Well, I tell you, this has sure been a winter for extreme chores.  And yes, Farmstead Creamery is shoveled out too, so you can always come on over for fresh greens, eggs, pastured meats, delicious bakery goods, and more.  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

 
 

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

 

 
 
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