North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Farm Tour Bloopers

You’ve seen bloopers at the end of videos or TV programs—those scrambled up or misspoken scenes that were edited out of the film.  Usually, the actors burst out laughing at themselves in the ensuing pandemonium.  But life, unlike film, doesn’t come with an edit button.  So when bloopers happen, they happen!

Some of the funniest blooper moments with folks on the farm have been in relation to farm tours.  Kids and adults who haven’t grown up on farms can offer the quirkiest questions or comments, leaving me with suppressed chuckles and a valiant attempt to come up with a good response. 

Farm tours are an educational experience, especially for those who haven’t spent time on homesteads or been near livestock, and questions of all sorts abound.  But there are a few gems worth a good chuckle for sharing after the event.  If you find your comment in these excerpts, remember we’re laughing together, not at you.  I’m sure I had my share of awkward farm questions when I was starting up too!

This last week, in connection with Independence Day, floods of folks were coming to Farmstead Creamery, many of whom were interested in seeing the farm.  Over the weekend, it was nothing but, “We’re here to experience everything!  Milk the cows, ride the horses…”

I stood on the other side of the gelato case, frowned, and offered, “Well, that sounds wonderful, but we have a little problem.  We don’t have horses or cows on our farm.”  For many people, milking sheep is a foreign concept, so the assumption is that our farm will have cows.  In fact, the Wisconsin-cow connection is so strong that I’ve had people tell me that we’re not a “real” farm because of the lack of bovines!

“I think we should offer the kids a cow scavenger hunt,” our intern Jake suggested one afternoon.  “Here, kids, the one who finds the most cows gets a free soda!  That could keep them busy for a long time.”

There are also classic animal age mix-ups, like asking about “lamb’s milk.”  I patiently explain that lambs are sheep that are less than a year old, ewes being adult female sheep, and you can’t milk a mammal until it has given birth—hence sheep’s milk, not lamb’s milk.  This is usually met with, “I had no idea you could milk sheep…so with the goat’s milk…”  But I’ve already submitted a whole story on that confusion.

Poor Belle the donkey inevitably gets called a mule.  Maybe folks are only accustomed to seeing miniature donkeys and not the standard size.  She takes it well, probably because she’s so far out to pasture that she doesn’t catch on.  As I’m explaining about Belle’s important job as a guard animal for the sheep, terrified parents ask, “Really, there’s wolves and cougars up here?”  I shake my head in disbelief, wondering if the recreation industry is just really good at covering up anything that would steer parents away from the Northwoods, or whether these folks haven’t been paying attention to the news.

Some of the questions or comments, however, are just plain bizarre.  Earlier, when our intern Sam (who hails from Vermont) was trailing a large farm tour group, she was asked, “Why do they cut the beards off the turkeys?”  I was near the front of the group and missed the event, but she asked me later about it.  “I mean, Chocolate and Vanilla (our turkey Toms) are only two years old, and it takes a good four years for them to grow beards, but cut them off…really?  Is that a Wisconsin thing?”

Here’s another precious specimen.

Tour Guest:  “You said that your sheep are grass-fed, right?”

Me:  “Yes, that’s correct.”

Tour Guest:  “So, what do you feed them in the winter?”

Me:  “We make our own hay for winter feeding.”

Tour Guest:  “But then it’s not grass-fed anymore.”

I can’t help but wonder what this person is thinking, that we have covered football fields of pasture for them to graze in January?  That we buy sod from parts further south and lay it out for them?  Do they know what winters are like around here?!?  But instead, I pause, take a deep breath, and offer, “Well, hay is dried grass, so think of it as stocking up the pantry with good food for the winter or packing freeze-dried foods for an extended camping trip.”

At the start of each tour, I asked the little people in the groups to promise me one thing—that they won’t touch any of the fences because most of them are electric.  “And those fences bite and it hurts, so it’s better to know ahead of time not to touch them.”  Most of the time, the kids understand and the little ones hold mommy’s hand, ride on daddy’s shoulder, or want to hold my hands to be safe from the biting fences.  But last week, one precocious girl announced, “Oh, I already found that out!”

“Oh dear, what happened?” I asked, looking around.  We hadn’t even cleared the parking lot yet of Farmstead Creamery.  “Did you find the fence around the greenhouse?”

“Uh-huh, it felt like someone slapped my tummy really hard!” 

Whew, well, at least it was her tummy and not her head.  Sometimes those little people don’t look where they’re running.  The mother shook her head and laughed, “She always has to learn everything the hard way.”

“Why do you need so much fencing?  Can’t you just let the chickens run?” is another question that pops up from time to time.  While I’ve tried several approaches to answering the need-for-fencing question, the most effective so far has been to list this areas predator load:  foxes, coyotes, skunks, coons, weasels, fishers, bobcats, owls, hawks, ravens, and so on, and so on.  Honestly, if we didn’t keep things fenced and lock everyone in at night, we wouldn’t have any livestock.  It happens quite often that, at the Creamery, I hear stories about how someone “used to have chickens, but then the (predator of choice) got it and….”

In the end, despite the bloopers, the odd questions, the wondering where the men or the cows or the horses are, the confusion about milking sheep, and all the rest, hopefully folks take away a meaningful experience of our farm.  But remember, life doesn’t come with an edit button, so I’m sure I’ll collect a few more bloopers yet this summer!  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

 
 

A Good Pot of Soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbed Chicken and Barley Soup

2 hearty quarts of broth with chicken

1 Tbs. olive oil

2 stalks celery, chopped

Half a medium onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

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

½ cup pearl barley

Coarse black pepper, to taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

The Grand Molt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My old hen was a good old hen

Best darn hen ever laid an egg

Sometimes white, sometimes brown

Best little hen this side of town

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid an egg since way last fall

First time she cackled, she cackled quite a lot

Next time she cackled, she cackled in the pot

My old hen, she won’t do

She lays eggs and taters too

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid a egg since way last fall

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

Old Time Farm Talk

Every occupation has its own specific vocabulary.  Spinners ply, millers brew, carpenters plumb, and social media enthusiasts tweet.  Farming certainly has its own slew of specific vocabulary—like the complex system of names for the genders and ages of animals, where an adult intact male hog is a boar, the female a sow, the little ones piglets…but if they’re girls they’re gilts and the boys are barrows.  But what really sets farm talk apart is the use of phraseology.  We’ve all heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, from those who are fit as a fiddle and merry as a lark.  But here are a few that, unless you’re a farmer, you might not have encountered before.

Many of these sayings involve animals, such as the notion that you shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing.  It’s a waste of your time and it annoys the pig.  Good fences make good neighbors, but the best fences are horse-high, pig-tight, and bull strong.  We all know that the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.  Crying over spilled milk isn’t quite as bad as when someone notes that your behavior is like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen.

References to people and their particular ways of doing things are also common.  Someone new in the neighborhood might not know you from a bale of hay.  Another fellow might be deemed slower than molasses in January.  A chatterbox might well be caught chewing the fat with a neighbor, while the patient type will explain that they ain’t in an all-fired hurry.  It’s all six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Is it a playful sense of language, its own form of insider’s code talk, or just plain old fashioned farm humor that stands behind these sayings?  Of course, if you’re a city slicker who doesn’t know sh*t from Shinola, then you might have a problem catching on.  But the stories behind words and phrases have always held a special fascination for me.  For example, S.H.I.T. was originally an acronym that stood for “ship high in transit.”  This dates back to the age when manure was hauled in sailing vessels to other parts to fertilize fields far removed from livestock raising areas.  Waterlogged manure has a way of overheating and potentially causing fires, so the shipments were marked with the acronym to ensure that they were placed higher up in the ship’s hold, keeping the manure dry and the crew safe from spontaneous combustion. 

A goodly portion of farm-steeped phrases have to do with life philosophy.  Some are rather practical, like knowing that life is simpler if you plow around the stumps—a fitting thought for a region that was homesteaded after the cutover.  Once the timbering trade left the landscape bereft of its majestic white pines, immigrant agencies touted pamphlets illustrating “seven easy steps for pulling out stumps.”  The propaganda was augmented with pre-Photo Shop images of farmers pulling wagons piled with mammoth onions, cabbages, and potatoes.  But those cutover farming days only worked for those who could keep skunks and bankers at a distance, if you know what I’m driving at.

It goes something like this; if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.  That, and most of the stuff people worry about ain’t never gonna happen anyway.    The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with watches you in the mirror every mornin’.  And when you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty

These might not be the same admonitions that marked our own childhoods, with warnings to look both ways before crossing the street, say please and thank you, and hold the door for folks older than oneself, but they carry their own set of wisdoms.  The knowing warning of never to corner something that is meaner than you could sure come in handy.  The school of hard nocks is aptly summed up by the sentiment that good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that come from bad judgment.  And, if you ever get to thinking that you’re a person of some influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around!

A mix of humor and humility, appreciation and irony abounds in farm talk.  I can remember one day rummaging around in the machine shed for a board or a wrench or something and just about getting wedged stuck between a hay rake and a wagon.  I turned to my mom with a straight face and said, “Don’t you think we could have gotten these a little closer together?”  She immediately burst out laughing and accused me of sounding like her cousin Jeff, who has a farm in central Illinois.  Irony is far better than complaining.  Doing something foolish and then whining about it is often met on the farm with, “Well, what’dya do that for?”  And who can’t help but chuckle at this notion—forgive your enemies; it messes up their heads.

My grandpa remembers his father saying “Thanks ‘til you’re better paid,” when a neighbor would do him a favor.  Times were tough in the depression era, and everyone knew that lending a hand without monetary compensation was part of the fabric of community life.  Being there for each other is a farming ethos we can all learn from this week.  So, as you remember some of your favorite Old Time Farm Talk, here is one last piece—live simply, love generously, care deeply, and speak kindly.  See you down at the farm sometime.

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

 
 
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