At North Star Homestead Farms, we are whole-system thinkers–leading by example with farming for community. While other growers or food service providers might incorporate some of the featured aspects below, it is unique to our farm to find all of them working together in a symbiotic relationship. We also take the process from the soil and sunshine to value-added deliciousness, right here! Discover more about the aspects of what makes North Star Homestead Farms distinctive, inspiring, insightful, and progressive.
Aquaponics, a Symbiotic Ecosystem for Year-Round Growing
Our corner of Wisconsin, set in the foothills of the Penokee mountain range, is classified as growing zone 2-3. We’ve seen frost every month of the year, and long, six-month snowy winters are common. And yet, we persist! Fueled by a desire to be able to grow foods year-round in a manner that was not reliant on chemical fertilizers, we launched our aquaponics greenhouse in 2012. Unique from hydroponics (growing plants in fertilized water), aquaponics is a water-based ecosystem that combines freshwater fish (we use Nile tilapia) with colonies of beneficial bacterial that convert that fish waste into nutrients for the plants. The water than circulates to the plants, which draw up the nutrients, while the biomass of their root system filters and cleans the water before it is returned to the fish. The whole process uses 90% less water than traditional field crop farming due to less evaporation and the recirculating effect, and we produce clean, delicious, bio-secure produce and fish all year.
Tilapia (which are in the same family as bass and crappie) are a freshwater fish that finds water temperatures around 74 degrees quite agreeable–the right temperature for growing edible crops. And we cultivate a diverse number of crops in our greenhouse, including many varieties of lettuce, kohlrabi, kale, Swiss chard, beets, tomatoes, bok choy, rosemary, sage, basil, frisee endive, thyme, mint, arugula, radishes, and more! Each year, we tweak and diversify the system, drawing from many different growing sources and our own ingenuity to craft solutions for increasing productivity and diversity. Seasonally, we harvest the older tilapia for filleting, raising new fingerlings in our breed tank to keep the cycle going. Any vegetable scraps and fish remains are saved and fed to the pigs and chickens, adding to the nutrition and diversity of their diets. While the aquaponics system is its own ecosystem, it is also an integral part of the whole-system integrated web that is our farm.
Sheep Dairy, The Stewarding Way
Sheep are not only sweet and lovable, they offer three completely different gifts: wool, meat, and milk. They are smaller (easier to handle) and lighter weight than cows, making them more suitable grazers on our fragile, sandy soils. We are very proud of the high-quality, delicious lamb we raise, and we turn our unique wool into creativity-inspiring yarns and roving as well as beautiful wearables and distinctive art. But, here we want to highlight the milking part of our flock stewardship.
If you’re not familiar, more sheep are milked worldwide than cows, and folks who suffer from lactose intolerance often find that they can digest sheep’s milk because it has a very different composition. Nutrient dense and higher in Calcium and Vitamin D, sheep’s milk is excellent for making cheese. Our signature creation via our Farmstead Creamery is our 100% sheep’s milk gelato, using authentic Italian techniques and our unique recipe. A delight for all ages, our gelato features whole ingredients and no preservatives, making it the perfect, healthful treat.
Unlike most sheep dairies, where they pull their lambs from their mothers (ewes) at birth, we allow our lambs to be naturally raised by their mothers until weaning, then we start milking. This means less milk yield for us but the payoffs in lamb survival, health, and vitality are immense. We believe that the mother-child bond is critical for sheep, and we respect its importance. All through the growing season, our sheep are out grazing our pastures during the day, rotating with our poultry, cows, and guard donkeys in a symbiotic relationship that has transformed the fertility of the once-exhausted soils. We lamb in the fall, and we’ve found our lambs to be considerably more robust because the ewes were able to graze on lush pasture during their pregnancies. Breeds in Kara’s flock include a mix of California Red, Finnsheep, Clun Forest, and others, utilizing unique breed choices in the dairy sheep world.
Humans have been farming grains for the past 20,000 years, but not until the 1950’s did we begin hybridizing wheat almost beyond recognition. Through the process of hybridization, the genetic composition of the wheat has become dramatically altered (via selecting for larger heads and shorter stalks). This genetic change has made the grain more starchy and created types of glutens (proteins) that our bodies cannot digest. Our allergies are to proteins, and for many people these new glutens are attacked by the body, causing many adverse reactions. The current trend has been to go “gluten free” and abandon grains altogether, but some of the ingredients used in gluten free products are poor or harmful choices for your body and are often highly processed. Our approach is to source ancient grains with the original genetics like einkorn and spelt. The healthy choice is to eat like our ancestors.
Our baking has utilized all Organic ancient grains since 2014, and it’s proving a healthy, delicious choice for our Friends of the Farm, whether or not they suffer from gluten intolerance. From sourdough to muffins, wood-fired pizzas to pasties, our ancient grains bakery and culinary offerings have a reputation for outstanding quality and flavor. If you love homemade breads, be sure to place your order in advance–they have a following! Real ingredients, no dough conditioners, made with love. That’s how we do it on our farm.
Sustainable Life Model
Farming sometimes gets a bad rap for causing environmental and social damage, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Soulful, small-scale, sustainably minded agrarianism can regenerate the soil, build and feed community, foster wildlife, and inspire positive change. Having a sustainable life model means not only looking at the picture from the microbial perspective but also zooming out to the “5,000-foot-view” and everything between. It means thinking about the process, the interdependencies, the relationships, and the responsibilities that come with stewardship. The soil, the plants, the animals, we as the tenders, and you are all part of this matrix.
Having a sustainable life model also means building in resilience, staying responsive to necessary changes, and working spheres of influence. We are in the process a building a website to support sharing the message of the sustainable life model, so stay tuned for more!
Here are more ways that you can learn about what makes our farm and our team unique!