Wisconsin pizza farm serves up food with a philosophy

Jana Hollingsworth
Special to Forum News Service

HAYWARD, Wis. — You’ve probably never reserved and paid for a pizza weeks before you ate it, but if you want one at the Hayward area Farmstead Creamery & Cafe, it’s best practice to get your hands on one.

It’s also part of the 104-year-old North Star Homestead Farms’ charm, and pizza is only a tiny slice of it. The family of four that runs the 250-acre property has spun it into a petite, self-sustaining empire where nearly everything they sell and serve is grown, raised or made either on their biodynamic farm or from nearby like-minded folks.

“We are not a fast-food place,” said Laura Berlage, the resident artist and musician. “We want you to have an experience. We call it farm time. It’s about soaking that up and savoring moments.”

That means reserving one of the 40 wood-fired pizzas made in an outdoor pizza oven on Saturday nights from the end of May through the end of September, from the only pizza farm in the region. (There are several in the southern parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin.)

Pairing with the family’s philosophy, pizzas are a finite item at this farm and its cafe. Nearly everything that goes into one comes from the farm, including the sauce, pesto, cheese, vegetables and meat.

And it is delicious. Ours one stunning August night was a lamb sausage, kale and sheep’s milk cheese concoction fired artfully on an ancient grain crust. A Celtic folk duo was set up in the corner. Pizza, a nice red and a delightfully creamy milk for my preschooler were followed by sheep’s milk cherry fudge gelato and a stroll through the grounds visiting chickens and pigs. Laura is right. It was slow food on a slow night, and it was perfect.

Berlage’s grandparents bought the farm — about 20 minutes east of Hayward and deep inside lake country — in 1968 from the Fullingtons, the original homesteaders. It was restored to a working farm in 2000 by Laura, her sister Kara Berlage and mom Ann Berlage. Schooled the Montessori way, the daughters used farming to further their studies before earning degrees: Laura, a fine arts master’s degree from Vermont’s Goddard College and Kara, an environmental studies degree from Vermont College. Ann, a doctor, practiced family medicine for three decades and now focuses on holistic wellness, and the farm’s aquaponics and lambing work.

Ann’s husband, Steve Barnes, helps run the operation that includes a chemical-free aquaponics greenhouse and a community-supported agriculture program.

“When we built our farm store, we knew we couldn’t just have a shop,” said Laura, 33. “You can talk until you’re blue in the face about how kale is better grown in (our greenhouse) than trucked in from California, but people have to taste it.”

The whole family helps in the cafe and shop, which serves breakfast and lunch year-round and offers Friday night multiple-course dinners in the summer months. Kara, 30, is the chef and creamery-runner. A licensed cheese maker and the gelato maker, she trained at a New York pastry institution with a visiting Italian gelato expert, having their sheep’s milk analyzed before she went so the expert could create a recipe specifically for the farm’s creamery.

What drives Kara is working “from the grassroots — the growing and the animal husbandry — and taking it through all the steps to put it on someone’s plate. … It’s so much beyond farm to table,” she said. “We can’t serve everybody, but we are part of the moment, and showing people it is possible for four people to pull off something like this.”

The family packs a lot into its operation, choosing environmentally-sound approaches, including crop rotation and rotational grazing for its pasture-raised sheep, lambs, pigs and chickens. They lamb in the fall instead of the spring so the mothers can be pregnant on lush greenery and to aid the cheese- and gelato-making in the winter. And Laura, a fiber artist, uses the wool. She weaves tapestries, hooks rugs and knits mittens and other woolens, teaching occasionally at both the Duluth and Grand Marais folk schools.

The farm also offers needle felt and pizza-making classes, a writer’s circle, open-mic nights in the warmer months and a small market for seasonal foods. The family sources from other local growers to operate as a hub for lots of local products and attempts to fill a regional need for an area that had nothing like their farm when the family moved up north from Platteville 20 years ago.

“It’s about making a difference, right?” Laura said, and impressing on their visitors why local food matters. It’s why they work hard to be good stewards of the land and build community in their small corner of northwestern Wisconsin.

“That’s good work that gets you up even when you’re tired,” she said. “We need more of that.”

Kara Berlage cleans up the outdoor pizza kitchen after service on an early August Saturday night at North Star Homestead Farms outside of Hayward.
The Farmstead Creamery and Cafe takes up only a small corner of the 250-acre farm east of Hayward.
A lamb sausage and kale pizza from North Star Homestead Farms.
Cherry fudge sheep’s milk gelato at North Star Homestead Farms outside of Hayward.