North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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Mud Season

In Wisconsin, they say we have four seasons—Summer, Winter, Deer Season, and Mud Season.  This year has seen a good-old-fashioned kind of winter, with plenty of snow, lingering bouts of cold, and little reprieve until lately.  Everyone is wishing for spring, with warm, sunny days, green, flowers, and an end to shoveling all that white stuff that won’t stop falling from the sky.

But somehow in our poetic waxings of springtime weather, we forget the less-than-elegant part that comes with it:  Mud Season.  It starts when the snow begins drip-dripping off the roofs.  You know it’s coming for sure when you have to start shoveling water out the front door of the barn.  And Mud Season is in earnest when you have to ask the milk delivery truck to stop in the front parking lot rather than at the service entrance—so the axels of her truck don’t sink out of sight in the softened gravel.

The pat-a-pat of rain outside the window is a sure sign of spring flooding.  We scramble about the garage, picking up our bits and pieces of winter carelessness—empty feed sacks, cardboard boxes, wayward buckets, and anything that’s worth saving from the creeping tide of snowmelt that seeks every crack and crevice to seep inside.

 

Winter boots trade out for high-topped rubber muck boots (otherwise known as Wellies), and it’s an on-again-off-again relationship with Yak Tracks…followed by a half-hour search for that one you must have lost somewhere while doing chores.  The snow is crystalline, chunky, and slowly revealing the lost bits and pieces buried in all the winter storms.  There’s where you must have spilled a little feed or where that mysterious hammer went off to.  The melt-off makes its own form of springtime archaeology.

The gathering mud sucks at my boots, drags at my sled filled with fodder and feed, and pulls our little car around on the twisting, soft lane.  Snowbanks slump and settle like piles of disappearing quicksand, and our sheepdog Lena can hardly bound across the yard without falling through the crust and floundering about with a strange mix of panic and glee.

My first robin, spotted alongside the road yesterday, pokes and pries for any bit of food.  White swans honk as they fly overhead.  I glance up to find them in the gray skies, misstep, slip, and land in a puddle.  Mud Season offers that funny parody of “oh good” and “oh dear.” 

One year, the frost was deep in the ground, despite plenty of snow.  And then it rained, and rained, and rained.  Our turkey coop, which sits in a low spot in the barnyard, was soon encircled by a moat.  More rain, and the water continued to rise.  When the tide began to seep into the front door of the coop, we knew we had to act.  Running to town in the truck (there was no way we’d make it out the half-mile driveway in the car), we dashed to the rental center in town to pick up a trash pump and several lengths of fire-fighter hose.

With shovels and hoes, we dug a low spot in the crusty snow below the water for the pump to set.  Chunks of bobbing snow, like gathering mini icebergs, bumped against our rubber boots as we stretched the hose out towards the hill beyond the yard that slopes down to the marshland.  But when we plugged in the well-battered beast, it pulled the water so hard that all the ice collected and choked the system.  So we bared our teeth against our freezing feet, standing nearly knee-deep in the frigid mess, armed with canoe paddles to keep the icebergs away.  Plumped hoses carried gushing water past the woodshed to blast down the hill in a torrent that washed away channels of sod beneath the snow. 

It continued to rain, and for two more days we had to extend our rent, wade the tide, and keep our canoe-paddle vigil.  We’ve since made some landscaping adjustment, but a turkey coop moat is still an annual spring occurrence.  The turkeys hardly seem to mind, so long as their house is dry.  Guess that’s what those long legs are for! 

The ducks are absolutely thrilled with the warming weather, and I’m sure they were out dancing in today’s drizzle.  Water!  They burrow their bills in the crystalline snow, prancing back and forth.  Oh for the day when they can take a bath in their kiddie pool again!  And mud?  Bring it on!  One of these nights, I’ll come in to the coop to find a flock of brown ducks.  Oh dear, well, at least they’re enjoying themselves.

But despite the flooding, the mess, the slipping and sliding, and all the rest, Mud Season reminds us that spring is on its way.  There may still be a few more snows before we’re through with winter’s grasp, but the sun stands stronger in the sky, the banks are receding, and someday eager blades of grass will poke through the mud, followed by crocuses with their cheerful purple faces.

Just recently, our first pair of lambs were born—a sure sign of the spring season.  My chick order is in to the hatchery, we’re planning the garden, and every day new smells greet me during chores.  Nature stretches, yawns, and slowly begins to move forward in the cycle of life from the cold depths of winter.

Keep your spirits up, watch for puddles, and enjoy those quirky moments that are all a part of Mud Season in the Northwoods.  I’ll be shoveling water out of the barn again tonight, for sure, but it’s all part of the process.  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.nort
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Nature's Catch-Up Game

I don’t think anyone can argue that this has been a strange spring.  Or shall we say, what spring?  Winter, winter, winter, winter, summer.  In one week, we had 18 inches of snow, followed by 80-degree weather!  Many of the domestic plants, like our apple trees, are just starting to barely leaf, holding back their buds as if wondering whether it’s truly safe to come out.

But Mother Nature isn’t waiting.  Already along the edges of the fields, the wild black cherries have opened their tiny clusters of white flowers.  Trilliums are beginning to appear in the woods, and everywhere the leaves are popping in their early spring shades of glowing green.

After the last snow melted, perennials like chives and rhubarb burst out of the ground, growing for all they were worth.  It is as if nature is playing her catch-up game—we’ve only got so much time before the fall frosts, so it’s time to book it!  With the recent rains, the yard has sprung into dark-green life, and violets and daffodils are beginning to bloom.

Last spring was an insane global-climate-change roller coaster.  First came the major warm-up in February that fooled all the plants.  March was like July, with 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day.  The apples bloomed.  Then the temperature plummeted (as did the apple crop potential), and everyone who had put in their gardens early had to start over.

The old saying up here is that you’re not really safe until Memorial Day, and we’ve witnessed frosts into the second week of June.  Some old-timers say they’ve seen it snow every month but July!  (Poor sledding up here that month, you know.)  Some of my artist friends who live in New York think this must be the end of the earth…who would ever want to live in the wilds of Wisconsin’s Northwoods?

But they don’t know to listen for the deep-throated call of the Bittern in the marshes—oonk-a-loonk, oonk-a-loonk—or watch for the return of the red-winged blackbirds.  The swallows dance in the air around the barnyard, causing the chickens to cry “HAWK!” because they’ve forgotten these friendly summer residents.  Tree swallows flit at the opening of bird houses, barn swallows swoop above the sheep’s heads, and cliff swallows with their yellow masks dive up into the rafters of the woodshed.

My urban friends don’t know to wait for the smell of the damp, cool earth as you turn in new compost for planting the garden or the change in the wind as a spring thunderstorm rolls through.  April showers bring May flowers?  Well, this year it has to be May showers bring May flowers—all part of nature’s catch-up game.  This spring, everything seems in a hurry to grow, bloom, and nest.  The bulbs planted last autumn in front of Farmstead Creamery propelled their eager leaves through the mulch as if to shout “We’re Here!”  Even the brave little cherry tree we planted last year sends forth tiny green leaves of hope.

This week, we loaded our laying hens into their mobile summer coop unit that sits atop a hay wagon and rolled the team out into the pasture.  Circled by the safety of an electric mesh fence, we released the ladies into their summer habitat.  Tails held high bobbed from side to side as they raced in all directions, scratching for worms and young, tender grass.  This was the long-awaited chicken heaven they’d been dreaming about all winter!  Finally, these poultry dreams had come true.

Even Belle, our guard donkey, got a romp out in the pasture during the day—trotting and shaking her head.  She loves to stand out in the rain and let it wash over her, as do the three survivor ducks.  Quacking and flapping their wings, they dig mud holes with their bills and preen their long, white feathers with joy.  Rain!  Nothing marks the transition from the winter season quite so well as a good spring rain—especially when it helps put out forest fires.

Some folks get a little funny when the seasons are changing.  Perhaps they’re not used to it or just not ready.  The welcomed weekend rains settled the dust of the hot, dry winds that had swept through for days, adding fuel to the Gordon wildfire just 45 minutes to the north and west of our farm.  Needless to say, the event had us terribly worried for all the people in its path and wondering what we would have done with all the farm animals should the fire have suddenly changed directions.

The light rain patted on the metal roof that Saturday as a family on vacation trudged into the Café and looked around at delicious farm cheeses, eggs, and homemade granola. 

“Isn’t it nice to be getting some rain,” I offered, bringing out a new tray of fresh muffins.

“Yeah, well,” the mother grumbled.  “Just wish it wasn’t today.”

I shook my head with an internal chuckle.  “Well, it’s better than a forest fire.”  But the lady just humphed, oblivious to the recent area calamity.

Now, I know you folks with lake property would love every day to be sunny and 80 degrees during your vacation, but please remember that the Northwoods is a whole ecosystem and that nature (and farmers) needs a good rain fairly frequently to stay healthy and your lakes filled.  Besides, a light rain seldom keeps outdoors folks inside.

We were planting peas in a newly-prepared garden bed just yesterday, with a light, muggy breeze teasing at our hair.  Our intern LeeAra was on one side, I on the other, and the bucket of soaked peas was in the middle.  A low rumble rolled over the brow of the sky.  We looked at each other, then up at the cauliflower-crowned clouds converging on all sides.  This wasn’t going to be some light spring shower.  It’s more like…how fast can you plant peas before the lightening gets too close!  We called in reinforcements and got the job (and chores) done just in time.

I hope that real spring temperatures will come soon, along with tulips in the yard and more gentle white trilliums on the forest floor.  When will the first monarch butterfly be spotted at the farm?  When will the first bluebird sing from the garden fence post?  Spring is truly here, as nature plays her wondrous catch-up game towards summer’s glory.  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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Garden Frenzy

Visitors this time last year would have witnessed a garden with only three rows left to hill and plant.  But this year, with the lingering winter and inclement weather, the garden has all but about three rows to go.  It’s a madness of squeezing a month’s worth of labor into about a week…if we can pull it off.  That’s right, it’s time for garden frenzy.

The early crops are desperate to go in the ground.  Little broccoli wait impatiently in their flats, while peas soak in the bowl.  We did manage to broadfork their beds, turning in compost and lime to amend the soil and stringing up trellises framed by 2x2s and latticed with used bailing twine.  There’s always a creative use for baling twine on a homestead farm!

The onions arrived during the last snow storm—a box full of 30 bundles of 60 little onion plants each.  The lid reads “open and plant immediately.”  The problem was that 18 inches of snow lay on the ground outside!  Then we opened the box to discover that the plants were covered in mold.  There was no way these little members of the lily family were going to hold over until things melted.

We sent pictures to the distributor and asked for advice.  The word was plant them in flats with soil, water, and light, and hopefully they would pull through.  If things didn’t work out, they’d send a partial reshipment.  That night until midnight, we sat on the walkout basement floor, pulling apart the moldy stems and handling them one-by-one.  Less than a week later, they were green, growing, and curling around their fluorescent grow-lights.  We had saved them!  But then, the UPS truck pulled up.

“Oh man!” he cringes, hopping out of the brown sliding door.  “Did you guys have to get more of these?  I couldn’t wait to get them out of my truck.  I’ve got onion breath, and I haven’t even eaten any onions!”

It was another full box of onion plants.  We opened it up…they were all covered in mold too.  We looked at each other, shook our heads, and that night planted 30 bundles of onions until midnight in flats on the floor of our basement.  Garden frenzy?  I think so.  Soon—very soon!—we hope to get them all in the ground and be done with it.  There isn’t likely to be an onion shortage on our farm this year!

Last year, there certainly wasn’t a potato shortage.  We had planted our biggest patch ever, with the understanding that an area restaurant was interested in buying 50 pounds of fresh potatoes each week.  It didn’t work out that way, however, so we passed out potatoes in the CSA program, and we sold potatoes at Farmstead Creamery.  We served potatoes in shepherd’s pie and Cornish pasties, and we ate plenty of potatoes.  But still, despite everything, boxes and boxes of potatoes went into our basement storage.

By now, as you might imagine, they have been starting to grow pale red and green shoots in search of soil.  What to do—we couldn’t use them fast enough!  So this year, we put them all back in the ground for this year’s seed potatoes (along with some more from the store).  We tilled up the patch by the beehive and had at it.

Our intern LeeAra hauled a bucket while we stuffed spades into the soft earth.  “How much of this patch will be planted in potatoes?” she asked, glancing behind her at the wide circle of bare ground.”

“All of it,” I replied matter-of-factly.  After the words left my mouth, I feared the idea might scare even me.

“All of it?”  As it turned out, as we dug and chucked spuds into holes, we barely got them all to fit into the patch—red ones, yellow ones, white ones.  Near the end, we’d toss three tiny ones into the holes, in the hopes that something would take.  It worked last year with a few leftover russets, so these might as well find a use! 

We planted the whole patch that day—something like eight hours of potato digging and 400 pounds of spuds.  Garden frenzy?  Well, Grandpa always says that most things are cured by hard work in the fresh air.  We had just a wee bit of both that day.

One of our former interns and farm groupie Kelli loves to boast that “Those ladies have compost piles bigger than their house!”  And it’s true.  The other day, as we began the labored process of preparing raised beds in the high tunnel for tomato plants, we attacked the pile that had previously been sheep, donkey, and hog bedding with shovels and buckets.  The black humus smells fresh and clean—far from the odiferous, steaming heap we had taken out of the barn.

But sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.  After a good eight trips of hauling compost in buckets, we’re ready to go at this big time.  The bucket brigade could take weeks to cover all of our CSA garden!  It’s time to get out the manure spreader, load up the compost, and do some massive humus distributing.  Forecast warning:  hats with large brims might be a good idea on that day.

Garden frenzy?  It’s that time of year.  So grab a shovel, a hoe, a broadfork, or whatever tool gets you out in the soil planting this week.  We’ve all been waiting so long for spring to arrive 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. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Signs of Spring

After the recent snowing and blowing with cloudy skies, frozen ground, and not even a crocus to greet us, we are all in need of reminders that spring really will come this year.  Enough is enough of winter!  This time last year, the hens were already out on pasture, scratching in the new grass and chasing bugs.  This year, they stare out the little doors from their coop, thinking, “What?”

But there are a few signs of spring amidst the lingering winter.  Last week, I heard our first flock of Canada Geese (though they were heading south instead of north…can’t really blame them) and the first Sandhill Crane flew past with its haunting call just a few days ago.  These graceful birds seem to glide through the air so effortlessly, mocking my mammalian terrestrial fate.  Each year, a pair of cranes nests in one of our fields, raising their fluffy young amongst the waving grasses of the pasture.

The Mourning Dove calls beside the maple trees, and the Phoebe proclaims his return.  Even a flock of Juncos landed to catch a bite of grit from the driveway before heading off on their long journey.  Mom even saw a robin.  Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “Two snows on the robin’s tail.”  Well, we’ve had one already, so just one more?  At least we can be hopeful.

Signs of spring are also happening on the farm.  Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and herbs sprout from growing trays in our greenhouse.  Usually we start a bit earlier than this, but with the lingering winter, it was easy to see that we could be quite overrun with root-bound transplants begging to get into ground that could still be frozen.  Safe inside the greenhouse, the little optimistic plants push upwards, unfurling their first leaves.  Soon it will be time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and all the rest.  Last in line will be the squashes, which have the remarkable trait of growing three times as fast as their other garden companions.  Guess that’s why they start with a much bigger seed!

Our first lamb was born just a few days ago.  Mascara, who was featured in the shearing story, delivered a healthy little ram lamb with a gray speckled nose and coppery ears.  Born during winter storm “Walda,” the little fellow was named “Waldo” as he teeters around, wide-eyed at the big world, bleating pathetically, “Maaaaaaaam!”  The ewe gives here deep “momma baah” in reply and steps closer to comfort him.  The other ewes grunt as they stand, carrying the great weight of their soon-to-be-born offspring.  It won’t be long before the barn is filled with bleats and baahs as the yearly cycle turns toward spring.

In our house, two incubators hum away, rocking back and forth their precious cargo of chicken eggs from my ladies.  Brown and sometimes speckled on the outside, yolk and white is gradually transforming into the chicks that will peck their way free.  Wet and sticky at first, exhausted by the effort, they slowly muscle the courage to scuttle, then to stand, and then to walk in a matter of hours.  Within a day, they will be eating and drinking—nature sure is ambitious!

I love the warm softness of downy chicks, their scurrying feet, their inquisitive “cheep cheep” as they explore their world.  Baby farm animals in spring give us hope for a new start to the year, full of life and expectations.

Cleaning out the beehives is another right-of-passage for springtime.  It’s important to know how many of the colonies made it through the long winter and to clean out any dead bees or other derby that might have accumulated before molds infest the hive.  This year, one of the colonies pulled through, while the other either succumbed to the cold, mites, or any number of winter bee diseases.  Scraping and brushing, the hive was made ready for a new batch of bees, which arrived the day after the snow storm!

At least the sun peaked through the lake-effect clouds as I popped off the cork on the queen cage, replacing it with a miniature marshmallow.  This allows the worker bees to eat through the sugar, releasing the queen slowly—giving her time to adopt the hive as her own.  Tap, tap, tap, and the bees drop into the open hive around their queen, crawling down between the frames to explore their new home, filled with honey and pollen just for them.  Close it all up as quickly as possible to retain heat, and these ladies have a new start on our farm.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before the dandelions poke through with their golden faces—offering a vital first honey crop for bees in springtime.

Even if you’re not on a farm, there are still many ways to look for signs of spring.  Here are a few to get you started.

Pussy Willows.  Keep an eye out for the white puffs of pussy willows, which are often a sign that maple syruping season is over.  Later, they will send out pollen-laden stamens, at which point we like to say that the pussy willows have “pussed.”  These willows can be a great source of pollen for bees and other insects.

Spring Peepers.  Often wintering in swamps and other low-lying wet places, a warm spell can bring out the first of these small-but-loud frogs from their wintering slumber.  I always get a good laugh when driving down a rural road in springtime when the upland parts are quiet but lowland dips grow steadily noisy…peep, peep, PEEP, PEEP, PEEP, peep, peep.  Spring Peepers are another recognized sign that syruping season is coming to a close.

Buds.  Watch the tips of tree branches.  You can even sense their swelling, then a bit of color, then the gradual opening.  Oaks often hold a burgundy hue, while maples are a deep green.  Now and then I’ll spy a grouse up in the branches, feasting on buds.  Checking in with the trees each day to watch the buds develop is a mindful way of noticing the change to spring.

Bulbs.  Whenever the crocuses finally pop through the soil, offering their purple-blue cups with yellow-orange centers, it seems cause for celebration all of its own.  The little bulbs planted on the west side of the house always emerge earlier than the north-planted ones, and then there is the joy of daffodils and later tulips.  Bursts of vibrant color from spring bulbs shake away the gloom of lingering browns and grays.

Birds.  Notice when you first see migratory birds returning.  Some folks even keep a journal of spring bird sightings, which can help show changes in patterns from year to year.  Listen for their songs from the yard, the woods, or the marshes.  Be careful about feeding this time of year—the bears are awakening.

However you mark the coming of spring, be sure to enjoy it as it comes.  We can’t hurry nature along, but we can enjoy her shifting moodiness that comes with spring through baby animals, re-awakening plants, singing birds, and the first flowers.  Spring is coming, sooner or later.  I think we’re all ready to say goodbye to winter and usher in the coming spring.  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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 
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