North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Cutover Farms

Back when Wisconsin became the 30th state in the Union, its northern regions were the impenetrable Big Woods.  But once the horrible and bloody Civil War came to a close, scores of men who had been employed by the military were looking for something to do.  Some went West to fight in ongoing skirmishes with Native Americans, while others headed North to become Pinery Boys and Lumberjacks. 

Chicago had burnt to the ground, and timbers were needed to rebuild.  Towns all over where expanding into cities, industry was booming, and the towering White Pines were believed to be there for the taking.  The massive deforestation process left the land stark and barren, and it forever changed wildlife habitat and weather patterns for the region.

The timbering industry brought with it railroads, towns, mills, and saloons.  But the trees would not last forever.  Once an area was cleared, the camps moved on to new territory, leaving behind massive stumps in their wake.  Timber Barons no longer wanted this land, and much of it was granted or sold to immigration agencies.

When volunteering one summer for the Sawyer County Historical Society, I learned how these agencies tried to sell the cutover land.  Their target audience was farmers.  In the days before Photo Shop, the immigration agencies doctored black-and-white photographs of wheelbarrows stacked with monstrous potatoes or hay wagon loaded with gargantuan cabbages.  “Prime Farm Land,” they touted, “Seven Easy Steps for Pulling Out Stumps!”

But as new immigrant farmers soon discovered, there was nothing easy about pulling out those stumps.  The old farm saying, “Sometimes it’s easier to plow around the stumps” exists for a reason.  But most of those stumps came out—blasted by dynamite, dug with grubbing hoes, and ripped from the earth with teams of draft horses.  We still have some of the old boxes that held the dynamite used by the Fullingtons to clear the farm’s fields.

As late autumn has stripped the trees and shrubs of their leaves, you can still see the old torn-out stumps along the edge of the fields.  Most sprout healthy stands of silver birches.  Others stretch with gnarled, gray ridges alongside piles of stone that were cleared to ease the burden of farm machinery in the sandy soil.  These weathered remnants stand as sentinels to an era that once was but is long past.

Those first pioneering farmers came in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  E. P. Fullington, an elderly Civil War veteran originally from Vermont, came with his 20-year-old son Lloyd in 1906 to claim a piece of land along a tributary to Hay Creek.  Together, they pulled stumps, built the barn and log cabin, and gradually added more acreage to the homestead.  In 1968, when Lloyd sold the farm to my grandparents, he made them promise never to plant trees in those fields.  The memory of the tremendous effort to clear the land so many years ago was still fresh and present in his heart.

Another wave of farmers came to the Northland during the Great Depression.  One gentleman who has stopped at our Creamery told of how his grandparents had homesteaded the farm down the road a piece from us in the 1930’s.  They had been living in Chicago but were concerned that the Depression would leave them starving, so they headed north in their half-broken-down Ford as far up as they dared and began clearing the land.  At least, out in the countryside, they could do their best to grow their own food.

But the soils of the region were not the best suited for agriculture.  Between the glaciers and the reckless deforestation process, the topsoil was thin and fragile.  Rocks and sand did not hold moisture well, and traditional tillage practices were better suited to lands Downstate.  Once the Great Depression had passed, many of the farm children moved into town and found new occupations. 

Instead of encouraging farming, government agencies began to actively discourage it in favor of moving the region towards resorts and recreation projects.  CCC camp workers replanted most of the forests, and as the old homesteads began to sell off, most were converted to pine plantations.  There is a general saying for the area that each pine plantation is likely to have once been someone’s farm.

But difficult soils are not impossible, and some of the old cutover farms, like ours, are still here.  Rigorous composting and low-tillage methods work best to regenerate soil, as do rotational grazing practices for livestock.  Farming in the Northland might not have been extremely successful, but it is still an important part of the region’s heritage to preserve and celebrate.  Unfortunately, Sawyer County projects a continued loss of land zoned for agriculture in the next 10 to 20 years.  For those who care about fostering local farming, this expectation is a great tragedy.

Daily life and the region’s landscape looked very different during the height of cutover farms.  Little 20, 40 or 80 acre homesteads lined the old rutted roadways.  Most were of the self-sustaining sort—growing a little bit of everything to get by.  They had a few pigs, some milk cows, a handful of chickens, and a back garden.  Some folks grew potatoes as a cash crop, or onions, or cabbages.  The sandy soil worked well for root crops, if you could keep the potato beetles at bay.  Families traded goods and services, and in the early days some of the men worked in logging camps during the winter and farmed in the summer.  Most folks walked or rode horses to wherever they needed to go.  Town could be a pretty rough place, influenced by lumber barons and the railway lines.

It was a hardscrabble place, but generally folks helped each other through the hard times, with barn raisings and quilting bees.  When the Fullington’s log cabin burnt down by accident, the community held a fundraising social to get the family back on their feet.  It was in the midst of WWII and supplies were scarce, but they built a new frame home as best they could.  All that had been saved from the fire were some important papers and Wilma’s sewing machine (minus one drawer, which fell out as she ran from the burning house).  Even after tragedy, farm families picked up the pieces and kept going.

As our society continues to muddle through difficult economic times, it is heartening to share the stories and experiences of the original homesteaders of the region who faced so many difficulties for starting a new life on the cutover.  Even when obstacles seem taxing, at least we don’t have to rise up each morning to pull more stumps!  This week, take some time to learn the stories of cutover farms in your area, even if all that remains are the foundations of homes and barns, grown up in trees and briars.  That homesteading spirit and value of community still survives amongst the brave few who continue to work the land with nurturing hands.  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

 

 
 

Farming for the Future

Let’s be honest, the current commercial system for producing, packing, and shipping foods is not sustainable.  On average, our food travels more than 1,500 miles before it reaches our plates.  It is not a wonder that lettuce in the store sometimes looks exhausted; I would be too after such a trip!  Shipping American apples to South Africa to be waxed and then shipping them back again makes little sense, as does the odd fact that it is difficult to buy a good potato in Idaho because avid exporting to other states takes the crop away from the locals. 

However, neither do northerners have to succumb to a diet of dried venison and wild rice to make it through the winter (though both are very tasty!), with a steady dose of squashes as the only vegetable.  Already, many regional farmers are extending their growing season with hoop houses known as “high tunnels,” keeping frosts at bay from leafy greens, carrots, and other crops.  Good old fashioned root cellars and newer methods of storage help keep fresh crops longer into the cold months.  Good keepers like apples, cabbages, potatoes, onions, and carrots can be savored from local sources well into March. 

But there is yet another method that is finally coming into its own that offers year-round local crop production as well as an added bonus—fish!  This method is called aquaponics. 

Aquaponics is a merging of aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (raising plants in water).  With aquaculture, the problem lies in what to do with all the fish manure (called fish emulsion).  In hydroponics, the trouble stands in finding a nutrient source, which typically is a chemical fertilizer.  Aquaponics, as pioneered by Nelson and Pade Inc. of Montello, Wisconsin, embraces the idea that bringing the two practices together (in tandem with colonies of beneficial bacteria) eliminates the need for fertilizers while improving the conditions for the fish as well.

The fish (usually tilapia because they are a fresh water fish that grows quickly and enjoys warm water temperatures) swim happily in large tanks.  The water from these tanks then flows through a series of filters and smaller tanks where the beneficial bacterial convert the nutrients into forms that plants can access.  The plants live downstream in a network of floating Styrofoam rafts, plastic channels that the water flows through, or beds of clay pebbles with drip lines.  Each growing environment supports different types of plants—from fresh greens and herbs to tomatoes, broccoli or radishes.  These plants clean the water as it flows by, and the water is returned to the fish tanks.  Once the system is filled, it requires 10 times less water per pound of produce grown than traditional field production.

What, local, organically-grown produce in the Northwoods all year?  That is right!  As we constructed our Creamery and Café, we built one of these aquaponics units housed in a majestic greenhouse alongside.  Instead of 1,500 miles, your salad can travel just a few feet from greenhouse to table.  Now that sounds more sustainable!

The aquaponics system has been an especially interesting project for my mother Ann, whose experience as a family physician brings acute chemistry savvy to the project.  Yet between maintaining a sensitive balance of pH and nitrites, there are plenty of hilarious moments when the fish splash wildly, eager for their breakfast or joyous celebration as the first seeds pop out of their little growing cells.

Sometimes, we are asked why tilapia are chosen for aquaponics systems, and there are multiple reasons.  The plants people like to eat enjoy a certain water temperature for growing, which happens to be the same temperature that makes these fish happy.  Other fish species like walleye or salmon require colder temperatures, which inhibit plant growth.  Tilapia are a wonderful fish for eating, especially when they are grown in such a clean, disease-free environment and fed high quality feed (which is mostly vegetarian). 

In our system, the lofty greenhouse is filled with blue tanks, in different sizes and proportions, networked by PVC plumbing lines that took months to connect correctly.  All this blue and white is now graced with green as the first generation of eager plants enter the drama.  At the Café, you can now enjoy the first baby lettuce crop—so tender and flavorful—without any of the guilt of shipping it from far-off places.

Initiatives like aquaponics systems are part of developments in agriculture that embrace goals of enhancing local food security and diversity.  The security aspect is multifold, from growing greens in a bio-secure, soilless environment (free from contaminants like E-coli, which cold-blooded fish do not carry) to building stronger local networks should long-distance shipping no longer be possible.  These systems add diversity, in the form of clean, wholesome protein (fish) and a rich array of vegetables all year, free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc. 

Our aquaponics system is a little world unto itself, snug in the greenhouse as the autumn winds howl outside.  Of course, the project did not start out this way, which was built mostly in late autumn and winter.  With our contractor Jon Sorensen of Venison Creek Construction, we assembled steel rafters on the concrete slab in hats and gloves, puffing steamily as we hauled each rafter into place and secured the parts together. 

The sides and ends were up, despite the instructions, and we were all set to put on the top covers…when it snowed.  Not just a little snow.  It was enough snow to keep the three of us digging for five hours straight, pushing and shoving the wet heaviness out the little back door.  That was more than enough of shoveling out the inside of the greenhouse!  It took a hearty crew of eight volunteers to hoist the top covers, which looked like great plastic sails.  Too gusty of a wind, and we might have found ourselves in the next county. 

At the time, it was hard to imagine that, only a year later, we would be growing optimistic little lettuces, ready for snipping and munching.  We hope to be able to offer some of the first tilapia for sale in November.

Because of the emphasis on bio-security (where the objective is to keep germs, pests, and other problems out of the system rather than trying to remedy the situation later), we cannot give tours of the facility.  Due to the transparency of the walls, though, it is easy to acquire an idea of the general workings of the operation from the outside, and we hope to develop a video tour for our website to give an “insider’s” feel. 

Systems like aquaponics, which are built to serve specific community food needs, are part of the future of sustainable farming.   This week, spend a little time learning how far your food has traveled, and see if there are ways to source your favorites closer to home.  Everyone’s efforts are an important part of preserving our beautiful environment, which has been so gracious in sustaining us with nourishment, shelter, and wonder.  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.  northstarhomestead.com

 
 
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