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

 
 

Firewood

It’s a Monday—our day that Farmstead Creamery is closed—which means it’s time for all those outside chores that have stacked up all week.  The chicken coop needs cleaning, the snowload supports in the high tunnel greenhouse need installing, and the hay elevator needs to be tucked away in the shed.

But when the weather report comes through that it’s bound to start snowing today and keep snowing all through Wednesday (with accumulations up to 18 inches), there’s another important item that bumps up to the top of the “needs to happen today” chart:  firewood.

Firewood is an integral part of Northwoods culture.  Some folks still heat exclusively with wood, while others (like on our farm) augment with fireplaces or efficient wood stoves.  Also on our list this year is the wood-fired pizza oven we hope to install at Farmstead Creamery in time for summer, which will need its own supply of seasoned, split wood for burning.

Storing all that firewood can be its own adventure, and many folks have been creative with tarps, lean-tos, sheds, or even just stacks between pine trees in the yard.  On our farm, the original machine shed (designed with one long side open for ease of backing horse-drawn sickles, rakes, and other equipment) serves as a roomy woodshed.  Over the years, the building has settled a bit—so watch your head.  The relatively neat stacks are in orderly, German-farmer fashion with the oldest logs on one side and the newest on the other, so you can remember which pile to pull from first when loading the wheel barrel.

Even logs cut as dead and fallen material from the acres of forest behind the barn still need a good year or two to cure and dry, so even when there’s a nice supply of firewood in the shed, it’s always good practice to head on out in the fall for more.  Gun season is over, the snow is coming shortly (already the flakes are beginning to fall from a clouded sky), so there’s no time like the present.

Chainsaws are another part of Northwoods culture, whirring away in the woods with a haunting echo.  Grandpa has a chain saw, but the vibrations are hard on our small hands—so firewood day includes enlisting the help of a chainsaw-savvy friend.  Today, it’s our neighbor down the way Bryan, pulling up in his white pickup as we hitch the old farm truck to the beater wood trailer and pump up the tires.  Kara has scouted a patch of fallen and standing dead hardwoods on the edge of the southern hay field, and off we go.

A few crows are cawing, but otherwise the woods it quiet as the snow blows in from the field.  The branches stand barren, clawing towards the gray sky.  The dusky-green pines wait patiently, their waxy needles immune to the damp cold of the afternoon.  Bryan and Kara head along a deer path into the grove, scouting out potential burning material.  Mom and I have the illustrious job of carrying out their doing—piling the maple, oak, popple, and ironwood into the trailer and back of the truck.  Thunk, thunk, the logs drop in.

We’re far enough into the woods that this involved a goodly bit of walking.  The old adage, “He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed” comes to mind as we unzip coats and hang hats on branches.  The snow is wet, and soon are we—slip sliding on our beaten-down trail as the logs begin to fill the sagging old trailer.

We keep at it—Bryan and Kara sawing and turning the logs, throwing them into piles, while Mom and I traipse back and forth with arms full—for three hours, until the trailer is so full the wheels squeak and the back end of the truck hatch can barely close.  This looks like a good haul!  Ah, but think of the task it must have been, back in the days when firewood was collected with hand axes and bucksaws…it must have been a monumental, never-ending task to keep the family warm.

That night, after cleaning the chicken coop, we unloaded the trailer by headlamp before the poor old shocks gave way, leaving five nicely stacked piles in the yard for the family’s Christmas wood-splitting party.  We’re sore and tired and can hardly lift our feet anymore, but it feels good to have one more piece of the list checked off for the year—just in time.  The snow is falling heavy now, and we’ll be in for a good dose of shoveling in the morning.

Being a woodcutter was a full-time profession in the Middle Ages, with forest lands carefully maintained.  In such a profession, if was important to know which woods served best to warm a home or castle, which is commemorated in this working song from the era.  You can listen to this song on my new Christmas CD release “Season of Delight” at www.heartistry.com 

 

Oak logs will warm you well, that are old and dry

Logs of pine will sweetly smell, but the sparks will fly

Birch logs will burn too fast, chestnut scarce at all, sir

And hawthorn logs are known to last, that are cut down in the fall, sir

Surely you will find, there’s none compare with the hardwood logs

That are cut in wintertime, sir.

 

Holly logs will burn like wax, you can burn them green

Elm logs burn like smoldering flax, with no flames to be seen

Beech logs for wintertime, yule logs as well, sir

Green alder logs it is a crime, for any man to sell, sir

Surely you will find, there’s none compare with the hardwood logs

That are cut in wintertime, sir.

 

Pear logs and apple logs, they will scent your room

Cherry logs across the dogs, smell like flowers in bloom

But ash logs, smooth and gray, buy them green or old, sir

And pile up all that come your way, for they’re worth their weight in gold, sir

Surely you will find, there’s none compare with the hardwood logs

That are cut in wintertime, sir.

Surely you will find, there’s none compare with the hardwood logs

That are cut in wintertime.

Have you stored away your firewood this year?  Amidst the snows of winter, it will feel good to have the woodshed full, the woodstove filled with the golden glow of a warming fire, and the promise of wood-fired pizzas during the busy days of 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

 
 

In Search of Light

We are seekers of light.  From the ancient days of setting bonfires atop hills in the darkness of winter to the contemporary fashion of LED Christmas lights turning humble homes into nocturnal gingerbread illuminations, the lure of light in dark times has never faded.  Specialists encourage synthetic daylight lamps on our desks to brighten mid-winter moods, while others simply move away during the winter in search of sun and warmth.

A winter exodus is often not an option for farmers, especially those who raise animals, so we must satisfy our need for light through other means.  There’s the good, old-fashioned book by the comforting glow of the wood stove as a place to start or the tradition of leaving all the holiday lighting up until the end of January to prolong the enjoyment.  There is something about the flickering embers of a fire that connects us with the ancestors or the colorful glint of illuminated home decorations that brings back magical memories for this time of year.

While humans are creatures of light by psychological preference, plants depend on light at a much more visceral level.  As the daylight slackened past the equinox, leafy crops in our aquaponic system (a specialized greenhouse where crops grow year-round, powered by nutrient rich water from our tilapia fish) began growing sluggishly, if at all.  It was something of an “I give up!” in the plant world, as most of their outdoor compatriots either succumbed to the cold or retreated to the root level with hopes for a new start in the spring.  In order for our indoor vegetable friends to have a chance, it was time to order grow lights.

We had hoped to be able to take advantage of new LED technology for grow lights, but this alternative was frightfully cost inhibitive compared with traditional models—it takes a massive pack of little lights to emit enough spectrum to stimulate plant growth.  The traditional models waste some energy as heat, but since we would only be using the lights in the wintertime, when the greenhouse required auxiliary heat if the sun was not shining, this could prove a bonus rather than a problem.  To best utilize this new resource, we added a timer and light-sensing system that would only turn on the grow lights when not enough sunlight was present to mimic day lengths similar to equinox levels.

Each light services an eight-by-eight foot region, so calculations showed that we would need 10 lights, which arrived through our trusty delivery driver who must often wonder what sort of odd bit of equipment we have ordered this time!  It was also tricky installing the lights because they had to be hung over the grow beds, which were already full of plants!  But tricky or not, the lights were up and running before Christmas.  The first time all 10 were turned on for inspection, the shine was surprisingly intense. 

“You could start a tanning spa in here,” Dave our electrician laughed.  “Might make more money than with lettuce.”

That first evening was filled with a misty fog, sending the warm, yellowish glow emanating from the greenhouse up into a dome of light above the trees.  Surely, the neighbors must be wondering what form of strange spacecraft has landed at that three-crazy-ladies’ farm.  What on earth are they up to now?

Jon, our contractor, was driving home that night.  As he made his way down Moose Lake Road, he noticed the glowing dome of yellowish light coming from the farm.  “I thought for sure the greenhouse was on fire!” he laughed with us after pulling up to the house to chat.  “I came around the corner in a great hurry and went, oh, well thank goodness.  Looks like Dave got the lights working.”

The plants were the happiest participants of all.  Within days, the Napa cabbages began to double in size, while the lettuces perked up their growth in response to the added day length.  As seekers of light, these leafy greens and fresh herbs rejoiced at the bounty of energy and have been filling our display cooler and many a salad plate since.

Other appreciators of supplemental light in wintertime are the chickens.  While in the summertime we raise chickens for the table as well as for the egg basket, the laying hens are the only chickens that overwinter on our farm.  This perky crew of Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, colored egg-laying Aruacanas, and feather-footed Light Brahmas transition from their summer quarters of mobile pasturing structures to the barnyard broodering coops or greenhouses.  Here, they are protected from the winds and nearby electricity can power heated water buckets.

But the hens, like the lettuce plants, stop producing during the winter months if left to nature’s allotment of sunlight.  Hens would spend more time sleeping and less time making your breakfast.  Chickens, like people, have a structure in their brain called the pineal body, which is stimulated by sunlight.  Take the sunlight away, and we naturally become sleepy.  In pioneer days, when lamp oil or candles were expensive, farmers woke with the sunrise and often retired to bed soon after sunset.

It does not require full spectrum sunlight—as needed by the plants—to fool the pineal body in humans or birds, however.  Simply adding more light can keep us and hens going long into the night…though not enough dark time and rest can leave both of us cranky and dissatisfied.  Adding supplemental light to chicken coops (in tandem with facing coop windows in a southerly bank to catch the most daylight) has long been known to aid winter laying.  Mix this with hearty heavy breed chickens, with plenty of bulk and thick feathering, as well as nutritional boosts like chopped liver, pork suet, kitchen scraps, or smashed pumpkins to replace those long-missed insects and green grass, and the ladies rebound from their autumn molt with vigor.

Tending the hens or the lettuce in the evening also gives me a boost of superficial sunshine, a glimpse of healthy, green growth, and a surrounding of contented, clucking hens.  We seekers of light find ways to make the most of winter, even with a bit of electrical foolery, to keep going through these long nights.  But as we embark into January, we know that the days are beginning to lengthen, if only by a minute or two each day.  Still, there is hope that spring will come again, with sunlight, warmth, and a new season of growth.  Savor those little moments, for each moment is all we ever have.  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

 

 
 

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

 
 
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