This morning before I left for work at Johnny's Selected Seeds I spent about an hour and a half pulling weeds and grass-rhizomes out of one of the beds. The bean-seeds that I had planted there were older seed and very few spouted, so rather than trying to pick all the weeds out around the three or so bean-plants, I decided to hoe the whole bed and resow with brand new seed.
My first priority upon moving to this property was to establish a new garden. I knew right away the spot where I wanted to put it; it's a stretch of flat ground beside the fence that runs along the road.
During initial conversations with the Murphys there was some speculation about how the patch of ground had been created. Some thought that the town fire department had come and dug the pond deeper to make a better water source in case of emergency. But then later on when a gentleman who used to work alongside Jim stopped in, I was informed that Jim had engineered the garden patch to possess the qualities that most plants prefer to grow in.
In both stories Jim hauled rock and dirt to the location to build up this 30-foot by 100-foot garden. Either way the result is a very fine garden spot with very good growing soil. Unfortunately Jim never got the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and the garden had grown over with grass and weeds during the last two years.
First year gardens are notorious for their weeds. Knowing this, I cover-cropped two-thirds of the garden with buckwheat in hopes of crowding out weeds (buckwheat is excellent bee-forage). I also lay cardboard and landscaping fabric on the rows where my tomatoes, peppers, and squash-family crops are growing, and then put mulched hay over my potato-neighborhood.
I had hopes of keeping up with the exposed portion of the garden, where the carrots and greens are sown, but while I was busy getting the bees settled into the apiary the garden was left a little neglected. Then to make matters worse, we've had some rain here in Maine the last few days and despite my best efforts to smother weeds in my first-year garden, some areas have gotten a little out of hand.
There are 2 beds like this--planted with older bean seed. I did not place my typical large seed order this year; with finances so tight, I opted to make do with my stores of seeds. Some of those seeds however are more than 2 years old (some seeds in my collection are even older), so while it was a little disappointing, I wasn't overly surprised when I saw poor germination of that seed.
It's almost worth the delay in green beans though, to be able to take time to haul more of these grass rhizomes out of the garden.
It's hard to believe that it's already been more than two weeks since Runamuk and I became residents of Starks. This was our third move in the last six months, and like all of the other moves there has been a period where I was once again without internet access. That, coupled with the business of settling into the farmhouse, getting a garden in and setting up the new apiary--meant that I have not been able to update the blog.
But we're here now, so get a cup of coffee or tea and take a minute to catch up with me.
Jim Murphy's farm is absolutely beautiful and I am totally smitten. Early summer is underway, with the lush grasses of the pastures rolling beneath the breeze that seems never to stop. The lupines are flowering around the pond, and the birds and frogs are so abundant that at dusk that one could wonder: is this Maine, or are we in a tropical jungle?
The farmhouse is approximately 175 years old and has it's own fantastic quirks that would be enough to turn many folks off of the place, but for this farmer those peculiarities only make me love it more. She's an old house, she creaks and leaks, the utility systems installed in it are a little odd and in some cases have been MacGuyvered into functionality; she's in desperate need of remodeling, but has solid bones and I see lots of potential.
My partner and I are digging in and working hard to bring this place back to life, mowing around the house and gardens, pruning the perennials, and organizing the garage and soon the barn. I see a lot of Jim in the place, it's clear that he loved this property dearly and he worked hard to build it up.
A number of locals--seeing myself or my partner outside working--have stopped in to welcome us to Starks, including one of the town selectmen. They all have a connection to Jim and a story to tell, and every one of these visitors say how happy he would be to see someone continuing to farm the property, and they are happy too. It's wonderful to be so embraced by the community, and as my tools begin to mingle with Jim's in the garage, my books mixing with his on one of the bookcases he left behind, I hope that I can carry on his legacy and live up to their expectations.
It's a beautiful property, but even this little slice of heaven comes with its own challenges. The watering system, for example...older New England farms like this one have old dug wells, which can run dry if the water is used excessively. So instead of using the well-water to water his crops, the ingenious Jim Murphy sunk a pump in the pond and runs water from the spring-fed pond. It works, but the pressure is much lower than I am accustomed to so I'm working to adjust my gardening methods to compensate and have plans for a rain-water collection system in the not-too-distant future.
Another challenge that my partner and I are coping with is our lack of mechanical skills. I am not mechanically inclined at all. I have many skills and abilities, but understanding engines is not one of them. My brain does not work that way, lol. So having all of these systems and machines that Jim just kept going by tinkering on them left and right, sometimes jerry-rigging them into working so he could get the job done--is a hurdle that we will have to learn to overcome somehow.
I think the biggest challenge though is a story familiar to most folks: time and money.
It was a miraculous arrangement that I managed to eek out with the Murphys. I am eternally grateful to be here, to be able to farm and keep my bees. But until Runamuk makes more money, I have to spend time at my off-farm job to pay the rent and car payments (my Subaru was a necessary investment, but it won't be paid for til March of 2016). There are other expenses too, plus the investments in the farm and the expense of maintaining it. Our finances are so tight in this transitional stage that it's downright scary.
To top it all off, I have an incredibly long list of chores and projects that need to be done in order to bring this farm back to life, and to get Runamuk to a point where it is contributing at least a portion to the up-keep of this property. The goal right now is for Runamuk to be paying the rent.
It's a bit of a balancing act that I have going on. 3 or 4 days a week at Johnny's, and the rest of the week in a flat-out run trying to accomplish as much as possible on the farm before I have to go back to Johnny's on Monday. It's hard even to pause long enough to snap a picture, and definitely sitting here writing is difficult, though I've been longing to share the story and our progress.
Sundays at the farmers' market is time away from the farm too, but aside from the revenue I generate doing the Bee-Line for the MSBA, sales at the farmers' market for eggs and soap is the only source of income Runamuk has right now. That, however, is a blog-post for another day, lol.
All in all we're settling in well, I'm observing the property to learn it's different attributes--where the wet spots are, where the water wants to run, which direction the wind is most prevalent from, what animals and plants are abundant here. I feel it's important to evaluate the resources that the farm and property offer so that I might learn how best to utilize and manage the land, to work with the land rather than against it.
So far I've found almost all of the herbs that I use in my salve-making, thriving in various areas of the farm. I've been able to designate space in the room above the garage for drying the herbs and have managed to go out a few times foraging for future salve-making.
The garden is in--two-thirds of it cover cropped, largely with buckwheat, which also feeds the bees, but also with a smaller percentage of mangels and beans. It's my hope that cover-cropping the majority of the garden this year will reduce weed competition for net year's garden. The remaining third of the garden I've sown my customary vegetable garden; divided into four family neighborhoods, and I've used as much mulch and weed-blocking materials as I could get for free, and the rest I'm hoping to be able to manage the weeds on.
Since the garden went in late, and because space and time are issues this year, I focused largely on storage crops, and selected shorter day varieties. So for example--rather than planting 110 squash varieties, I found some that would mature in 85 or 90, and I'm prepared to put row cover over them to extend the season into the fall should it become necessary. I don't intend to sell vegetables at market this year, but I have high hopes of canning tomatoes and beans, and storing potatoes and carrots in the root cellar.
And then there are the bees. This spring was the first time I've been without bees for 5 year and it felt all wrong in oh-so-many ways. I waited patiently all through March and April, and then waited through May a little less patiently, knowing full-well the kind of winter we'd had and the challenges that local beekeepers like my "bee-guy" face to provide nucs and bees, but I couldn't help it--I missed my girls! And then when my patience had just run out, my bee-guy called to say that my girls were ready. I was ecstatic.
The bees are set up, the garden is in, and I'm working on what I've dubiously named the "Hoop-Coop". I'm hoping to move my chickens in sometime in the next couple of weeks. More about that later.... For now, just know that I'm working hard to make something of this property, to make something of Runamuk and myself, and enjoy these pictures of the farm.
With just 3 weeks left til moving day, I'm looking forward to getting to work bringing Jim Murphy's old farm back to life. But before I get to dig in there, I first have to get through a marathon work-spree.
I haven't had the chance to share with my readers and followers that not too long ago I went into my local Campbell's True Value in Madison and was offered a job. They're expanding their garden center and wanted someone to work part-time through the spring and early summer months. Since my position at Johnny's Selected Seeds is a seasonal one, I knew that I would need something more during the summer until such time as I can replace the income with my entrepreneurial endeavors. So I took the job.
However the two positions overlap in the month of May, and with the new farm waiting in the wings, I need to come up with the deposit and first month's rent to get there, so it made sense to me to work both jobs for a few weeks. Meanwhile, I have a myriad of projects that I need to do for Runamuk that are just clamoring to be seen to, a beekeepers' meeting coming up, another issue of the Bee-Line to put together for the Maine State Beekeepers' Association, and several tasks for the farmers' market that are waiting for me too. I am managing to devote my attention to these projects for about an hour or two a day before or after I go to work, but primarily my life at the moment is consumed with raising the funds to get into the new farm.
That doesn't leave much time for writing, so the blog has been sorely neglected--and may continue to be so until after the Big Move. So bear with me, and in the meantime--enjoy these pictures of the farm that will soon be home to the Runamuk Acres Farm and Apiary.
The barn is across the road from the farmhouse.
It's a bit run down, but still a solid structure with lots of life left in it.
Jim's compost pile still resides there.
Extensive pastures will make great bee-forage and beckon to me for sheep! This picture was taken at the far end of the fields looking up towards the road and the backside of the old barn.
For the first time in months that my livestock guardian dog, Willow, was able to run freely across the land. She stretched her long legs and ran happily--slowing to sniff interesting clumps of grass, fence posts, and to lap at the little streams of water running across the land as the last of winter's snows melt away. What a happy dog she will be once we're able to live at this farm!
I have to admit, I was getting more than just a little discouraged. After coming from a farm in the middle of the woods, living on a small lot alongside a busy road--while being a step up from the apartment in-town--was still a bit of a shock to my system. But the rent was low and the landladies lovely to deal with, so I told myself I would make the best of it.
I did try--really I did. But the noise of the cars flying by drown out the sounds and sense of the natural world. I felt disconnected from nature and I began to wonder if I could really call myself a farmer after all. Those words: "What good is a farm without land"--once again echoed in my head. In the last few years I've surrounded myself with like-minded people. People who are passionate about homesteading, gardening, farming, and sustainable living. And then, there I was working at Johnny's Selected Seeds alongside a variety of farmers and gardeners, and preparing for farmers' market with other farmers local to Madison--I didn't see how I could compare or measure up to my peers. I felt very much like a faux-farmer.
It was in a moment of weakness, feeling downright despondent about my situation and all the back-stepping I've had to do in the face of my divorce, that I confided in one of my farming-friends how I'd been feeling. And this beautiful--wonderful friend of mine--made it a point to pull me aside at a market-meeting to tell me something that made all the difference.
She looked me in the eyes and said to me so sincerely, "Yes, Samantha--you ARE a farmer."
She said other people may have more land and more money to be able to play at farming with--but that my heart holds the truest spirit of farming, and she believed that it is that spirit and dedication, passion and love that make a real farmer. She said that I have that spirit, and that I am more farmer than many who claim the title.
It almost brought tears to my eyes. I felt as though the editor of the New York Times had just said to ME: "Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus." And Christmas had come early to me.
It still moves me to think of this. This wonderful friend gave me a precious gift--the belief that, though things might be less than ideal at the moment, the person that I am is still here inside me. I was suddenly able to hope again that I might find the ideal farming situation that I'd been longing and dreaming for. I picked myself up and started again with my search.
At that point that I reached out to another friend of mine regarding my search for a farm or homestead; this friend had a few different possibilities for me to explore. Still suffering from bouts of insecurity and despondency alternating with phases of hope and determination, I kept the list and pondered the options for a while. Eventually I determined that one of the three prospects stood out from the rest, but it took longer to muster the courage to call and inquire about it.
It was an old dairy farm located in Starks and previously owned by a man named Jim Murphy. Jim was something of a legend in the area. Initially a biochemist from Boston, he moved to the farm in 1990 after falling in love with the myriad of hiking trails in our area. But he spent some time in Maine before that when he lived and worked a year on Darthia Farm as a MOFGA apprentice back in 1988. He had a passion for farming, growing vegetables and raising sheep on the old dairy farm, and involving himself in the Starks community promoting agriculture and education. The man was an avid reader, and there was a bookcase filled with books in every room house; he'd hoped to see a community library established in the village of Starks.
The farm itself is beautiful and ideal. An old 4 bedroom farmhouse with a sun-porch and a root-cellar. There are acres of pasture just begging for sheep. Highbush blueberries, cultivated strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus and a couple of apple trees, as well as fiddleheads along the river-bed that abuts the property.
It was a tragic car accident that prematurely ended the life of Jim Murphy, leaving his farmhouse empty and the farm without a farmer--a loss that is still felt throughout the local community.
Jim's brothers have been managing his estate, and it is to those men that I made my case when I finally found the courage to call and ask about the farm. I followed up the phone call with an email, pouring my heart out to these strangers, writing about who I am and what I'm going through. I shared what I do for my community and what I'd like to do as a farmer, and I wrote about how much I could afford if I hoped to continue investing in my farming-business. I laid everything out, hoping against hope that these men might take a chance on me, and I sucked in a breath and clicked send.
Whether it was fate, luck, or just the right timing, they agreed to my plan! They thought that Jim would have liked the idea of a beginning farmer working his old farm, and they seemed to think that I was up for the job! Can you believe it!?
I met Charlie Murphy, Jim's brother, and his wife Dee at the farm last weekend when they came up from Massachusetts. The house still bears many of Jim's belongings and they are working at the difficult job of emptying the place out, but they graciously gave me a tour of the house and the barn--did I mention there's a fabulously old dairy barn? And we discussed the technical aspects such as the rent, the duration of the lease, and finally--we set a tentative move-in date for the end of May or the beginning of June.
You can imagine how ecstatic I am!
Those who knew Jim, whom I've told about the arrangement and my impending move to Jim's farm--tell me that I have some big shoes to fill. Jim left quite a legacy, and I only hope that I can live up to the expectations that they might have.
But I recall my friend's kind words, "Yes Samantha, you are a farmer." And they give me hope and fill me with strength. I know that I can bring Jim's farm back to life and that it will be great and beautiful and inspirational. And I know this because I know myself, and--after all--I AM a farmer.
The Madison Farmers' Market, held a meeting Saturday evening at the Old Point School in Madison, to finalize plans for our upcoming 2015 market season. I volunteer my time and efforts as the market manager, organizing, planning and promoting our young little market, and working to both serve local agriculture, farmers and farming in Madison and the surrounding areas. The members of the market have become good friends of mine, as we all work together to grow this grassroots movement for locally produced food in our rural part of Maine.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of this movement--working for the cause of promoting farming and the accessibility of fresh, locally produced, minimally processed, healthy foods. To serve as an advocate for wildlife conservation through sustainable living. I've surrounded myself with like-minded people--both at Johnny's Selected Seeds, where all of the employees are farmers and gardeners passionate about local food and protecting the Earth and its resources--and in my community.
Maine leads the local foods movement
In Maine we have a rich agricultural heritage, and that is evident as the demand for locally produced food continues to grow. People are becoming increasingly concerned with what they are putting in and on--or even near--their bodies. We are increasingly knowledgeable about food, health, and the environment--and people are afflicted by an irresistible compulsion to do something about it. As an example of our passion and dedication to quality food and local farming, Mainers are able to expertly toss around initials like "CSA", more restaurants are offering locally grown foods on their menus, and more and more people are moving toward lifestlyes that include the terms "do-it-yourself" or "grow-it-yourself", "off-grid" and "sustainable".
Nationally, Maine is second only to Vermont as leaders in the local food movement according to "Strolling Through the Heifers"--a Vermont-based advocacy group that puts out a locavore index ranking states by their commitment to local foods. And studies show that there has been a surge of small farms in Maine as people from all walks of life gravitate toward farming. This is particularly true for women; according to the 2012 Agricultural Census there has been a significant increase in the numbers of female-run farms over the last decade.
Maine's agricultural history
Here in Maine, farming preceded the European settlers with Native Americans growing corn, beans and squash to supplement their hunter-gatherer lifestyles. And when early settlers came to the area they first began sustenance farms to feed themselves and their livestock, and then a few years down the road when they had eeked an existence out of the forest they could expand those farms to begin feeding their communities.
But by the mid-19th century fewer young people were choosing farming as a way of life. And even 30 years ago there was a lot of negativity about encouraging young people to go into farming.
Farming becomes popular
Today though, the social climate and attitude toward farmers is changing. Farming has become popular and trendy. And there are opportunities here in Maine for beginning farmers. Nationally the average age of farmers is 58, but here in Maine we are bucking trends and between 2007 and 2012 the number of farmers 34 years of age or younger increased by 40%.
"Young growers have rockstar status," said Robert Johnston Jr. founder of Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine.
And Maine is not only adding young farmers--it's adding acreage--with 8% more of Maine's 19.1 million acres being farmed now than were in 2007. Many see farming as the key to Maine's future, with the potential to be a "big food state". Maine already has an abundance of water, and the future of climate change looks to only increase that water supply. What's more--we have an ideal location. Because good growing conditions are determined by the amount of available sunlight over the course of the year and not how cold or long the winters are, Maine's latitude is ideal for farming. Plus, Maine farming pioneers like Elliot Coleman have invented ways of extending the growing season without the use of fossil fuels.
Not that farming in Maine isn't without its share of challenges.
Stacking the deck against small farms
Despite the advantages for farmers here in Maine, the deck is stacked against small farmers, with government regulations favoring corporate farms. This is something I have experienced first-hand--both in my own farming efforts and as market manager watching other farmers working to scale up. In order to scale up so that we can make more money we need to market our products to more people, but in order to market to more people we need to first invest in a whole host of permits and licenses, many of which require expensive equipment for processing or refrigeration to comply with regulations. Those kinds of investments require money--and in order to make that kind of money farmers need to be able to market their products to more people. It's a catch 22.
New farmers also find it difficult to get access to land, let alone start-up capital for investments. My generation of farmers tends to lease land and farms. Sure we all dream of owning our own some day, but the reality is that we can't afford to buy that dream-farm outright, and that urge to farm is so strong and overpowering that we are seeking out alternatives that allow us to farm now--today.
It's a difficult road for sure, and some would-be farmers decide it's not worth the time, investment, or hassle, and instead opt to homestead--growing and raising food for themselves rather than trying to feed the community--happy enough to be living a more sustainable lifestyle.
Fighting the good fight
There are still many who continue to fight the good fight--like myself and my members of the Madison Farmers' Market, and like the assorted array of farmers and gardeners working alongside me at Johnny's. It is people like these that make up the local food movement here in Maine and they are an inspiration to each other, and to new and beginning farmers everywhere, each working to ensure the vitality of their own farms and at the same time feeding the local food movement in more ways than one. I'm proud to be one of them, even if my capacity at the moment is limited!
Have something to add? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Spring has finally come to my neck of the Maine woods. Last week, for the first time in months, the temperatures rose into the 40s and exuberantly I made my way to the apiary to check on the bees. After five years keeping bees I know enough to realize that the odds were against me. Last year's neglect led to hives with high infestations of mites, and while I hoped for the best for my remaining hives, I was realistic about what I might find when I opened the hives.
I could tell as I approached that it was likely the colonies had perished. On a warm sunny day in March the bees should have been flying, but the bee-yard was silent and devoid of life. Hoping against hope I lifted the top covers, but alas--inside I found only death.
You might think I would be devastated by the loss, but such is beekeeping in this day and age. Last year I chose to focus on expanding my farm, and so I did not invest much in the way of time or money into the bees. And it was evident when I finally did mite-tests on the hives and found them overwhelmed with the parasites. Belatedly I attempted to correct the situation, but as is so often the case in farming--if you miss the window of opportunity that Mother Nature affords you, it is often too late to do much about it.
This "window of opportunity" is something I emphasized with this year's bee-school students. I want them to learn from my mistakes.
Now here I am. Facing divorce, a farmer without a farm, having sold off my precious goats, starting over at square one, and not even a single colony of honeybees to boast of. People ask me how I am doing, and I answer honestly: some days are good, and some days are not.
Mostly I take each day as it comes, holding tight to hope and putting one foot in front of the other with sheer determination. But some days hope and optimism are fleeting. Some days the dream of having and working my own piece of land seems too far out of reach, and the pressures of the world are too overwhelming to bear. Those days I question myself, my choices, who I am and what I am doing. Those days are filled with anxiety and uncertainty and--I'm not ashamed to admit--sometimes even a fair amount of depression and self-pity. There is no choice but to endure the day hour by hour, knowing that somehow this too shall pass.
Then--just the other day--someone said to me when we were talking about my farm and the divorce: "What good is a farm without land?"
And that irked me. At first I didn't know why their words bothered me so much, but it was one of those conversations that stuck with me, and the more I play and replay the conversation over in my head, the more that question bothers me.
I am a farmer at heart, with or without a farm. And I have a farm-based business even without land to farm on.
Yes, some aspects of my farm I've had to let go of--the goats, the market garden, and for the time being--my grandiose plans for a pollinator conservation and sustainable living center.
But there are aspects of my farm that survive, such as the apiary. I have new colonies coming later in the spring to replace those that have been lost, and I have hopes of catching some swarms too. I have my beeswax products that I make and pedal, and I still have a dozen or so laying hens that are mine as soon as I have a coop to put them in.
I have small but growing group of dedicated customers and followers who support me and my farming endeavors, who swear by my beeswax soaps and herbal salves, are first in line to buy the season's honey, and who clamor for my farm-fresh eggs. They may be few in number, but regardless I have customers--and that constitutes a business--however small it may be.
Perhaps the question bothered me because it is one that I have asked myself on those bad days when I am overwhelmed by life, doubting myself and uncertain about what my future holds. On those days it's hard not to look at all that I have given up for the chance at fabled happiness and wonder if I have made the right choices in my life.
I am a farmer with no land to farm on. I am a beekeeper with no bees. How can I rightly call myself either?
And yet I do. I cling to those titles like a life-line. They have become part of my identity and I cannot let them go. I may be back to square one, but I am not quitting. I will continue working to build up my business on leased land until the day that I can invest in my very own farm and land. I firmly believe that I will have that some day.
There is a poem that I came across when I was still just a teenager making plans for the future, and it has stuck with me all these years.
"Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die life is a broken-winged sparrow that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go life is a barren field frozen with snow." ~Langston Hughes
Business planning and annual reviews are an important aspect of any business--big or small--even agricultural businesses. Typically most farmers spend time during the quieter winter months planning and preparing for the next season, and I may be a little late getting to it this year due to the disarray my life currently faces, but I have been reviewing Runamuk's farming operation and making plans just like any other good and dedicated farmer.
Recently I conducted a SWOT analysis of my farming business (read more about what a SWOT analysis is and how to do an analysis of your own farm by clicking here), small as it may be--and here is what I came up with:
Getting my home-processing license for bottling honey.
Building the apiary up to 12 hives.
Starting the Somerset Beekeepers' group.
Establishing the Madison Farmers' Market.
Placing in the top 25 of SYTYCW14.
What made you start your operation?
Needed to pay for my beekeeping and gardening obsession.
Needed my own source of income.
What are your major sources of profit?
Why do your cutomers buy from Runamuk?
We offer a local source of honey.
For our quality products
Because they know me--either as a friend or family member, or as a local farmer/beekeeper.
What sets you apart from others?
Dedication to conservation
What resources does Runamuk have access to?
Numerous apiary locations
Surplus hive equipment
Extractor & tools
What is your greatest asset?
Access to apiary locations
What does Runamuk not do well?
Keep hives alive long-term.
Grow the apiary
Increase market distribution
What are your least profitable enterprises?
What is your biggest expense?
What might other farmers see as Runamuk's weaknesses?
Lack of start-up capital.
Lack of a farm
Farmer spread too thin.
What should you avoid?
Losing any more hives.
Taking on too much too soon.
What resources does the farm need?
Funds for investment
A farm of my own/permanent location.
Opportunities for Runamuk
What technologies are available that you can use to lower costs?
Can Runamuk have more predictable cash flows?
What market trends have you observed?
Increased sales during the holiday season.
Opportunity for internet sales
Possibility for more sales via tourist hot-spots.
What new relationships can the farm develop?
Affiliates through the Homestead Bloggers' Network
Friendships with peers at market & Johnny's Selected Seeds.
What local events might benefit the farm?
Cook-offs (using honey is recipes)
Threats to Runamuk's Operation
Are there any significant changes to the industry?
Problems with mites.
Do you have competitors reducing the farm's market share?
More new beekeepers.
Lots of soap on the market.
Beekeepers with 100s of hives.
What are the major obstacles to the Runamuk operation?
Lack of land
Little start-up capital.
Difficulty keeping colonies alive/thriving.
Does the farm have bad debt or cash-flow problems?
Credit is tied up with the Burns property.
Could any of the farm's weaknesses seriously threaten the operation?
What does this mean for Runamuk?
Once I had all of this information I needed to translate it into some kind of plan.
Initially I took four pieces of paper and wrote "Strengths" on one, "Weaknesses" on another, Opportunities on the next, and Threats on the last. Then I jotted down the questions for each category and brainstormed the responses you see above. When that was finished I sat at my desk at Johnny's between calls for seed orders and took my red ink pen and a bright yellow highlighter and went through the lists. I highlighted those points that I feel were strongest, and added notes in red ink as needed. This just helped me to better hone in on my strongest strengths and opportunities, and to analyze those weaknesses and threats that pose the most danger to my farming operation.
With that done I took another piece of paper and spent some times matching my strengths to the opportunities that I saw. Then I did the same for Runamuk's weaknesses and threats--with the intention of converting them to strengths and opportunities down the road. And if I can't convert those weaknesses, I will work toward minimizing their impact on my business.
This is what my plan for Runamuk looks like for 2015:
No one gets into farming because they want to get rich, lol. But at the same time a farm is still a business, and a business needs to at least break even--if not earn a profit. Conducting a SWOT analysis of your farm-business annually can help you to determine what's working for you and what's not.
What is SWOT?
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. A SWOT analysis is a business planning tool that you can use to help identify these key components of your business by asking yourself questions and breaking the answers up into these categories.
Why should you SWOT?
A SWOT analysis can help to provide direction and serves as a basis for the farm's business plans. It enables you to find and identify competitive advantages by matching strengths to opportunities. You can pin-point areas of weakness or potential threats to your business and convert them into strengths or opportunities too. And if it is not possible to convert threats and weaknesses, at the very least you will be able to strategize a way to minimize or avoid them.
All of this translates into a clearer direction for your business that will produce a more successful and productive farming operation.
How to SWOT
Get some paper and sit down with a pen and write out the four categories: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Now ask yourself a series of questions for each category, brainstorm and jot down your answers. Here are some possible questions:
Your farm's strengths
What made you start farming? (It's important to remember the driving force behind your business--it can keep you grounded and provide direction).
What does your farm do well?
What is your farm's main focus?
What have been your most notable achievements?
What are your major sources of profit?
Why do your customers buy from Runamuk?
What sets you and your farm apart from others?
What resources do you have available?
What is your greatest asset?
What does your farm not do well?
What are your least profitable enterprises?
What is your biggest expense?
What resources does the farm need?
What might other farmers see as your farm's weaknesses?
What should you avoid?
What technologies are available that you might use to lower costs and/or improve marketing?
Can the farm have more predictable cash flows?
What market trends have you observed?
What new relationships can the farm develop?
What local events might benefit the farm? (annual fairs or festivals, etc.)
Are there industry promotional events that you can take part in? (for example: Maine Maple Sunday, Open Farm Day, etc.)
Can profitability be improved? How?
Have there been any significant changes to the industry?
Do you have competitors reducing the farm's market share?
What are the obstacles to your farming operation?
Does the farm have bad debt or cash-flow problems?
Could any of the farm's weaknesses seriously threaten the operation?
These are the questions that I asked myself when I did my own SWOT analysis (which you can see here). The answers will vary from farmer to farmer because every farm is as unique as the person farming it. There are many different types of farms--from apple orchards to dairy farms to vegetable farms, and a spectrum a methods for each. There is always something we are struggling with, and there's always room for improvement. Hopefully this list helps you to brainstorm and analyze your own operation so that you can be more productive ans successful this year than last.
Be sure to ask for the input of everyone who works the farm--be they family members, or paid employees or even volunteers. It's helpful to gain the perspective of others.
Once the key components of your operation have been identified and categorized the information can be combined and strategies can be created. Use the information you have gathered to draw up plans that take advantage of your farm's strengths and the opportunities you identified. Develop plans that counter the threats you foresee, and establish goals or guidelines that will help to strengthen your weak areas.
This becomes your business plan for the year. Revisit it seasonally to be sure you are adhering to the plan you outlined, but feel free make adjustments as needed--sometimes what we looks like a good strategy in February or March, may not be working so well come August. Any number of issues can throw a monkey-wrench into the workings of your operation--from a broken valve on your tractor that costs a couple of thousand to replace to an unexpected accident. And then there's the fact that much of farming is entirely dependent upon nature. A pest problem may threaten your most valuable crop, the weather may not cooperate, or perhaps there's a shortage of available crop-seed. Farmers need to be organized like any business, but we also need to be flexible enough to deal with the challenges that Mother Nature throws at us.
What do you think? Any experienced farmers out there with insight to contribute to beginning farmers everywhere? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments below!
It's that time of year when we're all sick of winter and looking ahead to spring. Winter is worn and tired and every living thing is waiting with baited breath for the warmth and rebirth that comes with spring. But it's not here yet, and most of us are frustrated with waiting and sitting on our hands watching more snow and cold roll through the Northeast.
I however--am not sitting on my hands. For me--an approaching spring means that all of the preparation for spring has already commenced, and I am right out straight trying to manage all of the different aspects of all of the different projects that I oversee--and this year I have the demand of a full-time job added into the equation. Spring my not be here yet, but the rush of spring has come into my life with a storm of demands and claims upon my time. Everything wants to be done and now.
Bee-school is currently underway and I am scheduled to be at the Somerset County Cooperative extension every Saturday evening following a day spent working for Johnny. I trek in there with my laptop, handouts and equipment to teach a series of 4 classes, sharing with the 2-dozen prospective beekeepers the basics of the craft, with anecdotes of my own experiences and mistakes thrown in for good humor.
In addition to Bee-School I need to spend some time recruiting speakers to come present to the Somerset Beekeepers over the course of the next year, organize workshops and figure out what kind of investments into supplies our group needs to continue educating area beekeepers.
But even more pressing is the BeeLine.
Back in November I took over as editor of the BeeLine, which is the bi-monthly newsletter distributed by the Maine State Beekeepers' Association. It is a 17-page newspaper that includes articles, current events, up-coming events, resources, and advertizements. And as editor it's up to me to collect all of these materials and organize them into a computer file that will allow the newsletter to be printed at the local print-shop. In order to even begin serving this position, I first had to learn to use design software--something I had never done before.
Being a fan of freeware, I found the Scribus program had good reviews and I downloaded it and spent a month learning to use it on the go (with some help from the former editor, who--as it turns out--is also a graphic artist by trade) as I assembled my first-ever BeeLine issue, which was published and sent out to MBSA members at the beginning of February. Now it's time to put together the next issue and get it to the printer's pronto. I spent my two days off from Johnny's working on that.
Then--as the manager of the Madison Farmers' Market--I'm working to promote our local market and recruit new vendors. This involves issuing press releases, posting to various social media, creating fliers and distributing them, as well as accepting phone calls and responding to emails from potential vendors to the market.
And finally--there's Runamuk. Things are quiet for Runamuk--I've ordered 5 nucleus colonies for this spring, and I'm working to set aside a few hundred dollars to purchase soaping ingredients and tins for my beeswax products. The urge to sow seeds and tend seedlings is overpowering, but this year I will be purchasing my seedlings from my farming-friends at my farmers' market.
That just leaves the blog. Now that I am finally beginning to get my life back together--now that I've figured out a new way forward for Runamuk--I am once again feeling the urge to write come flooding back to me. I do have a couple of articles that I'd like to write up for the blog, and a number of posts I'd like to share, but I have to fit this in between all of these other pressing matters.
In the past, the number of extra-curricular projects that I'd taken on was a lot of work even as a farmer who did not have to leave the farm to work. Now--under the circumstances--I'm thankful to have my job with Johnny's Selected Seeds, but working off-farm severely restricts the amount of time I have to dedicate to these projects. I have a payment for the Subaru Outback that I financed recently, and living expenses to keep on top of. Above all, it is imperative that I keep up with my finances and maintain a VERY good credit score if I stand a chance at ever financing a mortgage on a farm of my own. And that is the ultimate goal, folks--a farm of my very own. One that will never be at-risk of being lost to me ever again.
So it's a lot of work and things are certainly overwhelming right now--but it feels good to maintain these projects that have made up my life in the past. They provide a sense of continuity--reminding me that even while both Runamuk and I are changing and evolving through my divorce--a large part of who I was remains. My work for the community has played a huge role in what Runamuk has become, and it's important to me to maintain that service even through these uncertain and difficult times. And so I will continue to wear my many hats, and continue to juggle the multitude of projects that give me purpose. Hopefully those I serve will be patient and understanding!
Wednesday was a particularly difficult day for me.
It was a tough conclusion to come to, and one that I spent the last month thinking about, but in the end I decided that it was best for me, best for the goats, and best for Runamuk to part with the goats.
I said goodbye to all four of my goats--Bella and George were able to stay together--they went to a homestead in New Hampshire where they joined a small herd of rescue goats and another homesteading family.
Miranna--the White Queen--returned to 5 Season Farm where she originally come from, and Merriweather Brandybuck went to a large homesteading family--right in Anson.
Divorce is a good time to reevaluate your life. To take a step back and assess what parts of your life are really working for you, and what parts are not. To look at yourself and say: do I like who I am? do I like the person that I've become? do I like the life I'm living? the day-to-day existence of my personal being? do I like my job?
For one reason or another it can be incredibly difficult to make changes in our life--let alone the really BIG changes. We wind up with people who depend on us, a reputation to up-hold, principles and ideals, dreams and goals all to abide by, and it can seem overwhelmingly difficult to make big changes.
So when some kind of significant life-altering event such as divorce comes along it's the perfect time to take the opportunity to take stock and make the changes you've been wanting to make. And with that in mind, I've been evaluating my own life, figuring out how best to move forward with my new life...how best to move Runamuk forward.
It took a while to find a place where I can settle. I'd posted ads on Craigslist and the Uncle Henry's, but also spread the word via facebook and through good old fashioned word of mouth from my friends, family, and community that I have been searching for a 2 bedroom home where I can homestead--even on a small scale. I had some really intriguing offers too--opportunities like managing or working in partnership on other farms--all of which were distant and far-flung. Some opportunities included a great growing space for my market garden, but the housing was less than adequate, and with 2 growing boys having my own space with at least 2 bedrooms is imperative.
But with some patience and perseverance the community that I serve has come through for me, and I am so grateful. A friend of mine has a small house just outside of Madison that has 2 bedrooms, a large shed where I can store my beekeeping and gardening equipment, as well as just enough land for a garden to feed myself and the boys. The rent will be low enough that I will be able to continue to do much of what I've come accustomed to with the funds earned working at Johnny's (read about my new job with Johnny here), which is a huge relief.
As I seek to get both myself and my business back on our feet, I find it necessary to re-evaluate what I really need to be doing to build this farm-business up into something truly self-sustaining, and as it is--at this point, with no homestead, no acreage that needs clearing, and a job off the farm--the goats no longer fit into my plans for Runamuk. Better to let the goats go so that they have the space to roam and browse, and that I might better be able to focus my attention on the bees.
And so the funds that I took in from the sales of Bella, George, Miranna and Brandybuck will be used to put a deposit on 5 new colonies of bees for this coming season.
I'm not sure if I'm re-defining--or rediscovering who I am during this process, perhaps its a little of both as I let go of many aspects of my old life, embrace new elements, and refocus my attention on that which I wish to pursue--and on who I want to be--going forward. Whoever I am coming out the other side I hope that She is someone the old me would be proud to claim...
With divorce comes countless life-changes--first and foremost is the need for an income. So I've taken a job working for Johnny. It's been a long time since I've worked off the farm or outside the home. Eleven years this January, to be precise. It's been difficult to reconcile myself to the concept of "workin for the man" again. Abiding by the rules and constructs set forth by mainstream society along with an unknown entity typically referred to as "the Boss", adhering to a schedule and meeting expectations other than my own.
What originally began as a means to save money on child care and gas to and from work, and at the same time spend more time taking care of my babies, morphed into a work-at-home endeavor that gradually evolved into a farm-business. I'm extremely proud of all that I've learned, built-up and accomplished from the sanctity of my home. But whatever Runamuk may yet be--it does not pay the expenses of day-to-day living. Honestly--at this point--thanks to a number of set-backs (that's another blog-post) it's not even paying for itself.
Re-joining the mainstream workforce, I am grateful at least that I am able to work in the farming-field, even if it is not directly on the farm itself. Johnny is a good employer, the pay is decent for this area, and the people I work with are all farmers and gardeners on varying levels. I sit at a desk with a computer before me, a pair of headphones on my head with a cord that tethers me to the phone.
So who is Johnny?
You probably know him better as Johnny's Selected Seeds--the Maine-based, employee-owned seed and tool company serving so many homesteaders and market gardeners across the country. Elliot Coleman talks about their seeds in his books, and Johnny's carries all of the tools that Coleman has developed and trialed on his farm here in Maine. Their products are all of superior quality in order to provide the customer with the best possible growing conditions for success--that means their seeds have a higher germination rate and their tools are all ruggedly made for long-lasting use year after year.
And no--they're not paying me to say any of these things. Naturally I've hinted that I'd like to write for the company and get paid to do it, lol. But no takers yet. A lot of the employees of position here started just like I am--in the call center. I admit that I fantasize about working on the Johnny's blog and website--they offer a whole host of resources for growers--everything from growing guides for specific varieties to instructions for constructing your own hoop-house, informative videos and posts that give you a glimpse into the goings on at the Johnny's Seeds' research farm in Albion, Maine where the company trials all of the varieties that they offer in their catalog.
Like so many other things happening in my life at the moment, working at Johnny's has been a big transition. Having worked on my own farm I'm used to a much more active lifestyle, so sitting at a desk for 8 to 10 hours a day is taking a lot of getting used to. I've been here nearly a month and a half but I'm only just beginning to feel more comfortable with the atmosphere, their computer system, and dealing with customer service again after more than a decade out of the loop.
I admit that it's a bit of a bitter pill to swallow--having to work for someone other than myself again. But it's a means to an end, and I will continue to funnel money into Runamuk to re-build my enterprise, expand my business, and at some point in the not-too-distant future invest in my own farm property where Runamuk can settle permanently. And you know I will, because I am no quitter. I have a dream, and I am going to see it come to life.
It's probably the most difficult decision I've ever had to make: stay in an unsatisfying marriage in order to follow my dream of farming and pollinator conservation--or walk away from it all and start over in pursuit of real happiness. After the struggle to move Runamuk to the old Burns farm and all of the support that has been shown me along the way--it was incredibly tough to give up the land. But ultimately I just wasn't happy and I had to choose divorce and the chance for a truly happy life.
Some couples are fortunate--they share strong bonds that are only strengthened by time and life's trials, and almost miraculously they manage to sustain their marriage for decades and decades. I am completely awe-struck when I hear of couples celebrating fifty or sixty years of marriage--I think it's wonderful and beautiful.
Keith and I met our senior year in high school and we'd been together for 17 years--married for 15--but I can't remember a time when I wasn't more than a little dissatisfied with my marriage. I tried for more than a decade to make it work, to assuage the nagging feeling that I wanted more than Keith could give me. I tried to improve myself in hopes that would lead to a more satisfying life, spent time outside working in the garden in hopes that exercise and sunshine would alleviate the depression that ate away at my soul over the matter. I got involved in my community, made new friends, and started my farm-business. But through it all the dissatisfaction remained.
I don't care to lay blame or point fingers--it is what it is, and it just got to a point where I had to make up my mind if any of it was really worth it. And for me the answer was No. If you're not happy--you're just not happy. And I firmly believe that everyone deserves to be happy.
So despite my fears and misgivings, I took a deep breath and bravely walked away.
Keith and I agreed on joint-custody of the kids. I took my Willow-dog and I took Runamuk, and since the land has been in his family for 3 generations I felt obligated to leave that with him out of respect for the Burns family. Some day that acreage will be passed on to one or both of the children Keith and I created together.
In the meanwhile, I'm a farmer without a farm.
I'm in search of a place to rent for the next 2-5 years while I build up my business, for all that Runamuk is--it is not yet self-sustaining, and certainly doesn't provide the income that I need to live without working off the farm. So I've taken a job at Johnny's Selected Seeds, which is located about 40 minutes from the Madison-Anson area, financed a new-to-me subaru outback, and Willow and I begrudgingly moved into an apartment in-town in Madison while we search for a more permanent rental where I can move chickens and the goats and have space to garden and homestead.
I do not regret my marriage, I would not be the person I am today were it not for the life and experiences I lived alongside Keith. And by no means am I giving up my dream or homesteading ambitions. My life is in disarray, things are uncertain at the moment, but all things considered--I'm optimistic that this is just another speed bump on my journey and that some day my future will be all that I imagine it will be.
The plan is to focus on the bees--invest in new hives and increase honey production and production of my beeswax products. I want to focus on writing and increase my personal self-sufficiency for the next couple of years while I get back on my feet.
Long-term, I still have aspirations for a pollinator conservation center, a hundred or more hives, published writings and elegant art pieces. But for the time-being I am not looking that far ahead. For the time being I am concentrating my energies on re-grouping, centering myself, my heart, and my soul, and making a fresh start.
They say that dogs are "man's best friend". And people talk about the relationship between man and dog, but unless you've actually experienced that connection it's really impossible to comprehend just what it means.
I've been around dogs all my life--my family had a dog when I was growing up, and then when we embarked on our own life together, Keith and I went to the local animal shelter and found a dog who needed a good home. That dog's name was Tamra and she was with us for 11 years before she passed on. And then there was Ava--if you don't know the story of Ava--click here to read all about it.
But none of those dogs were MY dog.
The dog chooses it's owner--I firmly believe that. No matter who claims it, the dog will always choose the one person it prefers above all others. That's not to say that the dog won't love anyone else--most dogs are happy to be loved and petted and taken for a walk or a car ride by just about anyone who will show them a little care and affection. Such is the nature of dogs. But there will be one person that a dog will really bond with--one person who it will give it's life for.
So, yes--I'd known dogs, but I'd never had one of my own before. Not till I found Willow.
After moving to the property back in December, one of the first animals I wanted to invest in for our farm-expansion, was a livestock guardian dog. I'd been looking for and waiting for "the right one" when I found a local woman who needed to re-home her pyrenees/anatolian puppy. Willow was 4 months old, and I fell in love with her the instant I saw her. That was back in March.
At that point Willow was already the size of a golden retriever. She came from a home very different from ours--she'd been crate-trained, and allowed to eat chips and people-food on the couch with an 11-year old girl. So I worked dutifully with Willow--house-broke her, taught her to leave people's plates alone, to sit, to get off the couch upon command, and to go lay down.
Willow is an incredibly timid dog. Vehicles--especially the Runamuk truck--frighten her. Strangers and new dogs scare her. Loud noises, objects out of place, or change--all make her nervous. We joke about the fact that she has got to be the most cowardly livestock guardian you'll ever meet, but the fact of the matter is--she patrols the farm, barking to scare away prowlers in the dark, even going up against the resident porcupines (even if it is foolhardy) to protect out goats and chickens from mayhem.
I've worked with her through all of her fears, some still persist, but we've made good progress. The last time she had to go to the veterinarian's office to have porcupine quills removed she actually went into the building on her own--I didn't have to carry her in--and at almost 75 pounds--I can't tell you how happy I was not to have to pick her up!
We take walks together and play little games that only she and I know. She'll come trotting out with a big stick--almost more of a log at 4 feet in length--and she waits for the customary praise that I am only too happy to give.
She has become my constant companion when I am working about the farm. Joining me in the goat-pen to play while I feed the critters, or waiting for me outside the chicken coop. She accompanies me to the garden (though she still needs to learn some respect for the beds and the crops planted therein!), lays in the shade nearby and keeps guard dutifully while I spend hours weeding. Willow watches and waits while I move from one chore to another, waiting for the opportunity to get close for hugs (that's right! she actually gives hugs!), pettings and words of love.
She can be stubborn--especially when she's nervous--and she'll sit herself down, deciding that since she's big and strong she doesn't have to move if she doesn't want to. But when she looks up at me with her soft brown eyes shining and her tongue lolling, I can't help but forgive her--sinking my fingers into her soft fur and petting her the way I've come to learn that she likes.
For the first time ever in my life--a dog has chosen me as it's person. I'm sure it is due to the dedication, adoration, understanding and support that I've shown her. We just seem to connect--she understands me, and I understand her. And we're there for each other.
It's a beautiful thing--that relationship between man and dog. And she truly is my best friend.
This is the third segment of my coverage of the 2014 Maine State Beekeepers' Association's annual conference, and the second post regarding Dewey Caron's lectures about good bee stewardship . This year Dr. Dewey Caron gave two presentations--you can read about the first entitled "Looking in the Beehive" by clicking here, and be sure to read about Matt Scott's delivery of "Climate Change and Maine Bees".
For the second time that day, Dr. Dewey Caron went before the audience of Maine beekeepers, this time to talk about some of the things that beekeepers who are practicing bee-stewardship are doing. Dr. Caron said that “bees can do well on their own, but don't always know better,” and to emphasize the point he used a picture of a swarm that had built up a series of combs off the underside of a bar-b-que table, exposed and open to the elements and other dangers.
According to Caron, swarms have a 1 in 5 chance of successfully surviving the winter on their own, and as beekeepers we haven't been able to improve much on that statistic.
Caron recommends that beekeepers participate in the annual survey undertaken by the Bee Informed Partnership in order that we all might learn which management practices prove most effective for survival of honeybee colonies. Beekeepers interested in joining this citizen science project can find more details at www.beeinformed.org.
Understand the floral season
“You ought to know what the plants are that drive the hive,” Caron continued. Beekeepers should have a good grasp on what the typical forage and feeding season looks like in their area; what pollen and nectar sources are available? Those resources are what stimulate the colony to begin building up brood and the colony population, so you should know when to expect that to happen. That basic understanding of the floral season will help you, as a beekeeper, to know when to expect swarming, to know when you'll need to be adding honey-supers for the honey-flow. It will be an asset to know when to anticipate a dearth in the nectar flow, and when it will begin to diminish altogether for the season so that you can know when to start consolidating the colony and gearing up for the winter.
So what do successful fall and overwintered colonies look like? According to Dr. Caron they are hives with strong populations—but not so strong that they will burn through all of their honey reserves during the winter dormancy period. These successful colonies have young and vigorous Queens that can provide plenty of healthy, disease-free brood, and they have enough honey and bee-bread stores to last them til spring.
Challenges to successful beekeeping
There are, of course, a number of challenges beekeepers are facing that can sometimes prevent the success of overwintering colonies.
Non-native species - There's the fact that Apis mellifera is not even native to North America and so is not necessarily adapted to the conditions here.
Varying regional conditions - Environmental conditions vary greatly from one region of the continent to the next—for example, Dr. Caron admits that in Oregon where he and his bees reside, they have just one main nectar flow and do not see the boon of the fall flow that we have here in Maine.
Changes in environment from one year to the next - Every environment has its ups and downs as well—this year was cool and Indian summer has prolonged the foraging season, while last year's mild winter was followed by a very warm summer. These variations in the seasons are bound to have an affect on the success of our honeybee colonies.
MITES - Let's not forget the mites. The relationship the varroa mites have with honeybees is not a good one, Caron stated. The health of honeybee colonies has declined since the late 1940s, with an accelerated decline in the '90s as the populations of varroa increased.
For more than a century beekeepers have faced the puzzling phenomena of disappearing bees.
In 1891 and 1896 large colonies disappeared or dwindled to tiny clusters with Queens in May, and was referred to as “May disease”. It was suspected that the affliction was the result of a fungus known as Aspergillus flavus which can cause a form of “Stonebrood”.
On the Island of Wight in the United Kingdom, between 1905 and 1919—90% of the colonies died, and there was some contention about the root cause of the problem; some believed the die-offs were the result of the acarine disease, others thought it was due to the tracheal mite. Still more beekeepers believed the hive losses were related to colony starvation or Nosema.
The incidents of colony deaths go on over the course of the century until you come to the 2001 epidemic of the Parasitic Mite Syndrome and then the 2007 spread of Colony Collapse Disorder.
And we're still losing hives. According to Dr. Caron and surveys by the Bee Informed Partnership in 2014 beekeepers across the U.S. lost approximately 45.2% of their colonies, and in Maine the number here was 41.2%. Furthermore—I think it's important to note that according to these surveys—backyard beekeepers lose more hives than commercial beekeepers do.
So what can we do to improve upon those statistics?
Utilize Integrated Pest Management techniques
Dr. Caron suggests beekeepers employ what's known as “Integrated Pest Management”, or IPM. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization defines IPM as “the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize the risks to human health and the environment.”
Basically you're assessing the problem to determine if the threat level has surpassed a threshold that you regard as the point where action must be taken, and then you would decide what kind of treatment the pest-level warrants.
With an IPM program, beekeepers have a range of tactics available to them in what Caron refers to as their “IPM toolbox” to aid them in the ongoing fight against varroa; from the more preventative cultural and mechanical management techniques, to the interventive softer organic treatments and then the hard chemicals.
Cultural methods include careful selection of the apiary location, induction of locally reared bees and hygienic Queens, along with your choice in cell size. Screened bottom boards, drone brood removal and late-season re-Queening are all physical approaches. Strategies that involve essential oils, powdered sugar, or other repellents fall into the soft or organic category of chemical treatment. Finally the conventional miticides are a beekeeper's most aggressive course of action, which under the practice of integrated pest management would be reserved for the most serious of mite infestations.
Tough stuff for tough mites
The Bee Informed Partnership took their survey a step further by asking respondents about the treatments used in their colonies—the results indicate that reporting beekeepers who used Apiguard to treat their colonies for mite infestations only lost approximately 27% of their hives compared to beekeepers who used nothing who lost 37% of hives, and beekeepers who used some other kind of product and lost about 35% of their beehives.
Dr. Caron says “Mites are tough guys and we gotta use tough stuff” to have an affect on them and reduce the numbers of hives lost annually.
We have a bit of a problem on our farm. A porcupine problem--to be specific. With an overabundant population they're devastating the trees of our forest and repeatedly coming into contact with our dogs. But what can you do about porcupine problems on your homestead or farm?
Disclaimer: This post contains images that may be too graphic for some readers, please be advised.
Problems with porcupine
When we moved out of town and onto the property last winter we fully expected that the dogs would occasionally encounter a porcupine. We've had some selective cutting done on the property to improve the health of the forest and the forester told us that we had an overabundant population of porcupine here. In fact--we have so many that they're putting the health of our forest at risk. So we knew that there are lots of the prickly little beasts out here.
Still--we weren't prepared for that first night that Ava came home with a handful of quills in her muzzle. I felt awful! I felt so bad that our dog was in pain, and ashamed that we let her run loose, allowing her to encounter a porcupine.
Of course that's what the dogs want--roaming the farm, protecting the property--it's how they're happiest. And it's what we have them for--you know-apart from their loving companionship.
Keith's dog Ava was a beagle-jack russle terrier cross and about the size of jack russle (she had the terrier's energy, and the beagle's howling bark--it was a great combination, if you catch my drift), so she was small and we could easily handle her and remove the half-dozen offending quills.
It wasn't long after that when my girl Willow turned up on the front steps early one morning with a nose full of quills. Then the new puppy, Teyla (pronounced: "Tay-lah") came in one night looking more like a pin-cushion than a dog, two weeks ago Willow came in again with a nose and mouth full of quills, and then last week both the dogs came in with quills.
We've spent more than $800 on quill-removal this summer.
About the porcupine
Have you ever seen a porcupine up close? They're incredibly cute! We love wildlife--even porcupines.
These creatures are herbivorous with a diet that depends on the season--in the summer porcupines will eat shrubs, crops, wildflowers, clover, leaves and acorns, tender twigs, roots, seeds and buds; while in the winter they'll eat needles and tree bark, and will dine on hemlock, birch, beech, aspen (which is known as "popple" or "poplar" here in Maine), elm, oak, pine, willow, spruce and fir.
Also referred to as the "quill-pig", porcupines are actually a rodent--the 3rd largest of all the rodents--grow to be 18 to 23-inches long and can weigh up to 28-pounds. With 30,000 quills covering their back, sides, and tails, they can resemble a little armored ball moving slowly through the forest.
They are primarily nocturnal animals and make their dens in hollow trees or beneath downed logs, under a rock ledge or in the abandoned burrow of another animal.
Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot "throw" their quills--the animal has to actually come into contact with the porcupine for this defensive measure to be effective. Nevertheless, it is an extremely effective defense, and very few animals have figured out the secret to eating porcupines. Those that have discovered that flipping the porcupine over to get at it's tender belly include fishers, wolverines, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, bears, mountain lions, golden eagles, and the great horned owl.
As humanity continues to expand it's population local wildlife populations continue to be affected, which means that ecosystems are thrown out of balance.
In our area in particular, many of the porcupine's predators have been pushed out of this habitat. We no longer see wolverines, wolves, or mountain lions. Locals speculate whether or not the fisher and bobcat still reside in some of the more remote areas of the region, and black bears, coyotes, and the great horned owl are significantly reduced in numbers here.
All this results in the porcupine population becoming out of balance, as we are now seeing.
Warning: Graphic images below.
What can you do about porcupines?
Dogs are not the only animals at-risk of porcupine encounters on the farm or homestead. Horses, donkeys, cows, and more, can all come into contact with a quill-pig. I am by no means an expert--so when we began to have problems with porcupines here at Runamuk we turned to those whom we knew would have the answers. Below are a few suggestions based on our experiences this summer.
Talk to a forester, biologist, or game warden.
Find out more about the porcupine population in your area. Some states don't have such an abundance as we have here in Maine, and in some states porcupines may be rare and even protected. If you live in an area with a healthy or overabundant population, it's a good idea to walk the property with one of these "experts" to see how the porcupine population is affecting your property specifically.
Look up state regulations
If you contact your local game warden about your porcupine population and determine that you do in fact have a problem, you can ask him or her at the same time about the laws regarding hunting or trapping porcupine. Here in Maine--as it turns out--there is no closed season and no bag-limit on porcupine; you can find more details about Maine hunting regulations here.
Have a good local veterinarian
Many veterinarian services offer after-hours emergency vet-care. It's a good idea to keep their number handy and know their policies regarding emergency vet service. For example--our local veterinarian requires that pets be a current patient to receive emergency care; all the more reason to make sure your pets have been seen by the vet and are up-to-date on their shots. If your vet does not offer emergency care, find out where the nearest emergency animal hospital is and add their number to your address book.
Do NOT try to relocate wild animals
It's a popular misconception that troublesome critters can simply be trapped and relocated. This may be the simplest course of action for the homesteader or farmer, but it can be disastrous for the animal. Relocation can be stressful--putting the creature at risk for disease or predation. The relocated animals have no prior knowledge of this new home, which is a huge disadvantage in finding food and shelter. What's more, they lack the knowledge of existing animal hierarchies and may even spread disease. For more details about relocating wildlife check out this article from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Learn to tolerate wildlife
Humanity relies on the biodiversity of our planet for our own sustainability. Whether we appreciate it or not, we can set off a whole chain of events when we attempt to alter nature and Her natural patterns. Every creature plays an important role on our planet and that's why it's important to learn tolerance for wildlife and--even if we may not appreciate a particular creature--accept that it is an important part of life on Earth just the same. And so I accept too that occasionally one of the dogs are going to come home stuck with porcupine quills, it is a part of life in rural Maine.
Hook your dogs at night
Willow really loathes being hooked or leashed at all, but with so many porcupines causing so much trouble for us this year, we've taken to hooking the dogs at night. It may not eliminate the problem altogether, but since porcupines are primarily nocturnal creatures, hooking the dogs will significantly reduce quilling incidents and save us from making such frequent trips to the veterinarian's office.
We know that we have far too many porcupine for our ecosystem to sustain here at Runamuk, and since there is no closed season for hunting porcupine Keith borrowed a .22 rifle from his father. So far his porcupine hunts have been instigated by the dogs' porcupine encounters and he's killed 3, but with this most recent incident he has begun to take a more pro-active stance on porcupine hunting.
Note: Keith suggests that if you're going to attempt to skin a porcupine, ensure that you have a pair of thick gloves to prevent getting stuck with the quills in the process.
Once we've killed the animal, we're not going to waste it--and so we've had 3 porcupine dinners this summer. But how to you cook porcupine???
I had to look it up online for the answer--and most results said to roast it in the oven with root vegetables like potatoes and carrots. So I did. And that was the chewiest meat I've ever tasted. Keith wouldn't even eat it because it still looked too much like a porcupine, and because--having been raised on meat from the grocery store--we're still adjusting to butchering our own. There's an element of self-doubt that comes with acquiring these new skills, you're wondering if you did it right, worrying about what could happen if you did it wrong. But the kids exclaimed with gusto that it was "the best porcupine they'd ever tasted!"
The second one I stewed as you would an old hen or a gamey rooster, and that was delicious. The flavor and texture of the meat was something of a cross between roast beef and rabbit, with that distinctive gamey flavor. I seasoned it with rosemary, sage, salt and pepper--a bay leaf would have been good too.
I was so proud of that stew! Made almost entirely with ingredients grown on this farm--carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic--and, of course, the porcupine. The only ingredients not from the farm were the vegetable stock I boiled the porcupine in (to save time I used some I'd purchased at the grocery store), and the celery, which I have yet to master growing.
Practicing good stewardship
So that's what we're doing about our porcupine troubles here at Runamuk. We have a pretty high tolerance for animal-interactions anyway, since we're so passionate about nature and wildlife. Yet maintaining proper biodiversity of all the species in this habitat is our responsibility as stewards of this land, so until such time as the porcupine population is reduced to a level that the forest can maintain, we will continue to hunt them. And because we are loathe to squander the animal's life--we will eat them, feeding our family so that we may continue our work here--reclaiming this old farm.
Have you had trouble with porcupine? Got tips about cooking them? Feel free to share in the comments section below!
We woke to the first snow on the ground here on the farm! There's nothing quite like the excitement of a first-snow. The kids popped out of bed, the dogs were eager to go out, and I could resist the urge to snap a few pictures as the sun came up over the Runamuk farm.
This old 1950s Farmall tractor was donated to our farm--it took us a while to find someone to help us move it to the farm, but last Sunday it finally arrived!
The tractor came with a number of attachments--including a plow, which I am ecstatic to say will help us keep our 200-yard driveway clear this winter (and also means I won't be shoveling the whole thing! yay!!!).
The tractor had belonged to my aunt's 93 year-old father-in-law, who's had the thing for years just sitting in a garage at his place over in Vassalboro--which is nearly an hours' drive from the farm. To even get the machine running so that it could be loaded and moved, Keith has made several trips over there to work on the engine.
I am so grateful such generosity--every farm needs a tractor, and this is going to be a huge asset for Runamuk.
Former president of the Maine State Beekeepers' Association and retired state of Maine acquatic biologist, Matt Scott gave a presentation at this year's annual conference entitled: “Climate Change and Habitat Fragmentation to Honey Bees in Maine”. Scott acknowledged that climate change is something of a controversial topic, but admits that at his age he is less constrained by society's rules. Personally, I think it's good to talk about climate change and the effect it is having or will yet have on the Earth and all who live here; after all, once upon a time the concept that the Earth could be round was also a controversial topic.
What is global warming?
Scott began by defining global warming, which is “the warming of the Earth from carbon dioxide and other air pollution collecting in our atmosphere, trapping the sun's heat and causing the increasing the temperatures of our planet.”
Increasing temperatures & carbon dioxide levels
According to Scott, global temperatures gradually increased between 1950 and 2010, and carbon dioxide levels increased between 1960 and 1995 from 315 ppm (parts per million) to 365 ppm. Scientists conducting on-going temperature analysis at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies state that since 1880 the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about .8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit). And two-thirds of that warming has occurred since 1975 at a rate of roughly .15-.20 degrees Celsius per decade.
When scientists first began looking at the warming trend, they could only look back to about 1880 when we first had the tools to analyze and record the data. But since the 1950s teams have been venturing to Greenland and the Antarctic to take ice core samples, which allows for continuous reconstructions of past climate—800,000 years or more.
The high rates of snow accumulation in these regions provide an excellent time resolution and bubbles in the ice core preserve actual samples of the world's atmosphere. Scientists can then analyze the preserved samples to learn more about glacial-interglacial cycles, changing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and climate stability over the last 10,000 years. Looking at past concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the layers of the ice cores, scientists can calculate how modern amounts of carbon dioxide and methane correlate to those of the past and compare past concentrations of greenhouse gasses to temperatures.
Scott went on to site the evidence for rapid climate change, pointing out the rising sea levels—17 centimeters in the last century, warming oceans, and shrinking ice sheets and decreased snow cover among the many indicators for global warming.
“There has been significant melting of ice and snow in Greenland,” Scott stated. And Nasa's site for Global Climate Change confirms that not only Greenland's, but also the Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. In fact, Nasa's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment indicate that Greenland lost 36-60 cubic miles of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antacrtica lost approximately 36 cubic miles of ice between 2002 and 2005.
Some folks look at individual events such as a nor'easter that drops 14 inches of snow in December, or the recent arctic vortex that plunged Maine into frigid temperatures and scoff at the notion of global warming and climate change. However Matt Scott says that these extreme weather events—referred to by the scientific community as “episodic climactic events” are proof of the changes that our planet is facing.
Further online research lead me to the National Climatic Data Center for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which lists in detail these episodic weather events from around the world—all the way back to 1991. Events like the ice storms of 1998 that caused so much damage across eastern North America, the historic U.S. heatwave experienced during 2012, increased incidence of wildfires in the western part of the country, and of course—the polar vortex during the 2013-2014 winter, just to name a few.
Incidentally scientists have identified that interactions with the decline of Arctic sea ice, reduced snow cover, evapotraspiration patterns, NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation) anomalies, along with various weather anomalies are all linked to the polar vortex and the configuration of the jet stream.
Scott talked about how climate change may not be creating hurricanes, but they are making them stronger—turning a category 3 hurricane into a much stronger category 4 or 5. And according to Nova via pbs.org—hurricanes are essentially giant heat engines transferring latent heat energy from the ocean to the atmosphere and transforming some of it into mechanical energy in the process. The result is those hurricane force winds and giant waves that are associated with these storms.
So if you pump more heat into such a storm system, warming the atmosphere and the ocean—it makes sense that the venting will get stronger as well.
Climate change in Maine
Maine is getting warmer and wetter than it has been in the past. Matt Scott records weather data from his home in Belgrade, and said that he used to see maybe 4-5 days of above 90-degree weather there, but this year they saw more than 11 days of above average temperatures. NASA's site for Global Climate Change states that since 1950 the number of record high temperature event in the U.S. is increasing, while the number of record low temperature events have been decreasing. These rising temperatures increase the risk of drought, and could result in vegetation die-offs and drier soil conditions can also contribute to more sever heat waves.
At the same time we've witnessed an increasing number of intense rainfall events—such as the massive storm that swept through central Maine this summer, even producing a tornado over in Saint Albans. Associated with the risk of drought and drying is the projected increase in intense precipitation—which leads to flooding, like those witnessed out west. It seems counter-intuitive, but because the precipitation is concentrated into more intense events with longer dry periods between, the parched Earth cannot as readily absorb the rainfall, which leads to the flooding.
All of these factors will inevitably have some kind of impact on Maine's future climate. Warming temperatures will likely alter the composition of tree species that make up Maine's forests, because we are in a transition zone between the eastern temperate forest to the south and the boreal forests to the north. Any climate induced changes to our forests are likely to occur quicker and be more pronounced here in Maine than they would be in other places.
How climate change affects Maine bees
We may also see the migration of animal species moving farther north—animals such as the moose and black-capped chickadee who prefer cooler climates. At the same time warming temperatures promote the spread of invasive exotic plants that choke out our native species. The availability of native plants is directly linked to the population of insects—including our native pollinators—that we see here in Maine. Currently we have some 270 documented species of native bees, but that population will likely change as our climate and ecological processes are altered by warming temperatures.
In addition to climate change, native bee species are facing the increasing threat that habitat fragmentation poses. Scott sites that since 1960 Maine has seen it's population grow from .7 million to 1.4 million in 1990. That kind of growth means the expansion of suburban and urban suburbs. We've also seen an increase in lakeshore development and year-round living in areas that were historically wilderness territories. He went on to say that the development and loss of farmlands further reduces the available forage for native bees and honeybees alike, all the while creating a greater footprint that mankind is leaving upon the Earth.
The undeniable truth
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the face of the ice cores that can trek warming trends back some 800,000 years, along with the myriad of data gathered regarding the rising sea levels, rising global and oceanic temperatures, shrinking ice sheets and more--state that the current warming trend is particularly significant because it most likely is induced by human activity and has increased at an unprecedented rate over the past 1300 years.
According to the IPCC, “Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”
Scott credited much of his findings to the research and documentation provided by one Dr. George Jacobsen, Professor Emeritus of Biology, Ecology, and Climate Change and who is associated with the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute.
“The enemy is us,” Scott quoted the 70's-era Pogo comic strip, and went on to say: “We need to include ourselves in this process—we're part of the problem, and we need to be part of the solution.”
Cold weather is once again on our doorstep. Farmers and homesteaders alike are racing to finish their winter preparations before the first snowflakes fly. We have gardens to put to bed, livestock to prepare and equipment to get ready for the long season ahead of us. If you're new to farming or homesteading, the list of chores for winterization can seem overwhelming, or perhaps you're not sure exactly what needs to be done. To help you on your way, I've assembled some guidelines here, along with a number of links from my fellow bloggers over at the Homestead Bloggers' Network. And be sure to print out the "Winterizing Your Farm" checklist from the link below!
Several feet of snow, driving winds and bitter cold can make life bothersome for just about anyone, but if you're a homesteader or farmer the day to day management of animals and property becomes downright arduous. Which is why it is critical to plan ahead and prepare for the long winter months ahead.
Each homestead and farm is as unique as the people who manage it, so the challenges that you face may be very different from those that the next guy (or gal) will have to cope with. The suggestions I've compiled for you below are by no means comprehensive, but hopefully they will help to steer you in the right direction, generate some ideas and help you to brainstorm how you might best prepare your homestead or farm for winter. And if you still find yourself in doubt, there are a number of links at the end of each category--go see what other homesteaders are doing to get their farms ready for the winter ahead!
Please feel free to download a copy of the (Winterizing the Farm) checklist I've assembled, print it out and get to work!
Make a list
Start by taking a walk around your farm with a notepad in hand. Write down everything you see that needs to be done to put your farm to bed for winter, and to prepare any livestock, equipment, and your homestead for the cold.
If you are farming with a partner--such as a spouse or significant other--you might consider taking this tour together. Typically men and women's views of what should be done will differ somewhat, since we each tend to come at farming from different angles.
My husband, Keith, and I have fallen into somewhat traditional roles on our farm--I manage the household, care for the children, the livestock, and tend the garden; while Keith constructs sheds and buildings, performs maintenance on the truck, tractor and other equipment, and wields the power-tools and chainsaw that I am reluctant to handle. So while I am focused on putting the garden to bed, he is busy working on the tractor--etc.
Organize your list & delegate
This may seem trivial, but I've found that a bit of organization can save me from feeling overwhelmed when the list of chores seems daunting. Because we're creating a diversified farm, I have divided it up into different categories, for example: the garden, the apiary, the livestock, the homestead, etc. And so when I make plans I always group various projects, supply lists, investments, etc. into the category that it falls in. But that's just what works for me--perhaps you have your own method of organizing--feel free to share in the comments section below.
It can be difficult to relinquish control; I admit freely that this is something I struggle with. I want to see a job done well, and I know that another person may not do the task the way I might; that's not to say that that person's method is wrong, it just doesn't match the picture in my mind. But that's my problem and not theirs--if everything on the list is to be accomplished in time, it's important to accept help where you can get it. Assess the list, determine which chores you must absolutely do yourself and which can be done by another person, and then delegate those chores accordingly.
Onto the winter preparations!
Whether you're a homesteader with a garden just for your family, or a farmer that maintains a 1-acre market garden feeding a 20-family CSA, the tasks are generally the same.
Remove and drain irrigating equipment, store away out of the elements.
Sow fall crops (if you grow crops for winter harvesting, such as brassicas or leafy greens like kale, mizuna, claytonia, spinach and lettuces--you would sow these in August; but garlic can be sown as late as November depending on where you are located).
Sow cover crops like oats or winter rye to protect the soil throughout the winter.
Perform a soil test and add necessary amendments.
Gather and store any garden tools or other implements (cleaning your tools before storing them helps to increase their lifespan).
If you're so lucky (and of course I'm admittedly biased-I believe every farm and homestead should have at least 2 beehives!) as to have an apiary on your homestead or farm--no matter if that apiary consists of 2 hives or 20--you'll need to ensure that your girls are well prepared for their long incarceration.
Summer equipment--like honey supers, Queen excluders and pollen traps should be removed and stored (be sure to store your drawn honeycombs in a way that mice cannot get at them! I speak from experience when I say that rodents can decimate your beautiful combs. I recommend either storing them in plastic bins, or keeping them in the wooden bee-boxes, but settle those boxes in an inverted telescoping cover, stacked one box on top of the other, and topped off with another telescoping cover).
Install winter equipment such as entrance reducers, mouse-guards, and moisture absorption materials (I can't stress enough how important some kind of moisture absorption is!).
It's optional, but I recommend--especially if you live in an area that receives lots of snow--to have an upper entrance on the hive so that air can continue to circulate, and the bees can emerge for cleansing flights even if the lower entrance should become blocked by snow.
Wrap hives according to the local practices (here in Maine beekeepers typically use roofing paper - aka: "tar" paper).
Ensure hives are protected from driving winds--either you've located the apiary against a natural wind-buffer such as a grove of conifer trees or a building, or you will want to stack bales of hay around three sides of the hives, leaving the southern side open.
Not only do you need to ensure the animals and their housing is in order, but you also need to have the foresight to plan for winter management of those animals. Snow, ice, and bitter cold and wind make all your chores more difficult, so think ahead and prepare accordingly!
Ensure all of your animals are healthy, their hooves and feet are well cared for, and that they are all up-to-date on their immunizations.
Winterize barns or livestock sheds by stopping drafts and ensuring adequate ventilation.
Water is critically important during the winter--consider how you will keep your livestock supplied with fresh water.
Stock up on feed and bedding so that you won't run out in the middle of a blizzard.
Before the snow starts to fly make sure your equipment is ready to go. There's nothing worse than facing a foot of snow only to realize that there's a problem with your plow-truck!
Locate shovels and snow-scoops and have at the ready.
Perform routine maintenance on vehicles and tractors.
Add anti-freeze fluid if needed.
Put your plow on before the first snow fall.
It's a wonderful feeling when the snow is falling outside, the critters are bedded down for the night, and inside the homestead is warm and snugly. Be sure to double check the following just to make sure you're well prepared.
Check your heat-source and have it serviced.
If you use a woodstove or other such wood-burning device--inspect the chimney or flue--and clean it.
Weather-strip and caulk around exterior doors and windows, along with the openings for pipes, wires, vents, and ducts.
Inside the house, clean heat register, vents and duct openings to keep them free from dust, lint, and pet hair.
Protect exposed pipes to prevent frozen pipes in January.
Be sure to have a minimum of 3-days' worth of food and water on hand in case of an emergency situation (most homesteaders do this anyway).
Gather your winter survival equipment (ie-flashlights, radio, etc.) and store them where they are readily accessible.
Pull out the family's winter gear and assess it--has anybody outgrown their boots or jackets? Do all of the mittens have matching mates? Make sure everyone has proper clothing before the first snow falls because I can just about guarantee that kids are going to want to play in it (and if you're like me, the adults may just want to play too!).
Last weekend Maine saw the first nor'easter of the season, and some parts of the state received a sizable amount of snow. Here at Runamuk Acres we were fortunate to get less than an inch, and that was gone by the time the sun came up the next morning. My plan had been to have the farm put to bed and ready for the winter by Thanksgiving--next year I think I will strive to have everything done before Halloween!
If you have any questions please feel free to leave them in the comments section--likewise if you have a tip or suggestion that you think new farmers and homesteaders aught to be aware of as they prepare for winter. We're all at different stages in our pursuit for a more self-sufficient life, but we're all in it together!
Well it's been 2 weeks today since I went to the annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers'. It's taken me that long to get all of the different bits and pieces, lectures and presentations written about in full detail. For the last 3 years I've provided the written coverage of the day for the MSBA's bi-monthly publication "The Bee-Line", which goes out to all of the registered members of the organization, and so what you read below is essentially what will be published in that journal as well. I feel it's important to share these informative lectures with beekeepers who are not able to attend the annual meeting. Often these kinds of conferences are host to big names in the industry, men and women who have played a key role in beekeeping--and Dr. Dewey Caron is definitely one of the greats in beekeeping.
Who is Dr. Dewey Caron?
A graduate of Cornell University and an emeritus professor for the University of Delaware, Caron has some 43 years experience teaching about bees, has served in various capacities at the Eastern Apicultural Society, and is currently the Vice President of the Oregon State Beekeepers' Association. Caron is also the author of numerous beekeeping-related books, including “Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping”. These are just a select few of Dr. Caron's contributions to the world of beekeeping. His was a 2-part lecture on "Good Bee Stewardship" --a topic that I was eager to learn more about. This first presentation was entitled “Looking in the Beehive”.
Objectives in beekeeping
As you would expect of a man who has a lifetime of experience educating people about bees, Caron was an engaging speaker. He talked first about our individual reasons for keeping bees. Perhaps you are part of the growing numbers of new beekeepers who have heard of their plight, and wanted to do your part to “save the bees”. Maybe the bees found you—maybe a swarm congregated in your backyard, or it could be that your “Pappy” (as Caron called him) kept bees and it inspired you to follow in his footsteps. Or were you trying to supplement your income?
For me, personally, bees were almost an afterthought—I am an avid gardener, aspiring to live an increasingly self-sufficient lifestyle and reducing my impact on the Earth. I mentioned in passing to an old friend of the family—a 35 year beekeeping veteran—that I was considering incorporating bees into my homestead for the benefit of pollination. Less than 2 weeks later she showed up unexpectedly with the equipment for my first beehive and I was lost. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be here today—devoted beekeeper and zealous pollinator conservationist—I'd have thought you were joking. But the bees spoke to me (surprisingly enough), and so now I speak for them.
But I digress—Dr. Caron went on to say to the assemblage that the person sitting next to each of us probably has different objectives in his or her beekeeping. Your priority may be maximizing yields, where the next beekeeper may be all about minimizing in-puts. “There is no one-size fits all approach,” Caron said.
Communicating with the bees
Dr. Caron said: “Beekeeping is all about communication.”
He went on to say that “the bees may be try to say something to you, or you may be trying to say something to them. You may have added a super and you expect them to fill it up, but did you tell them? Or did they tell you?” We need very close beekeeper to bee communication, and different bees use different dialogues; and like any other relationship--communication requires constant work.
Approaches to hive management
According to Dr. Caron there are 3 basic approaches to hive management: exterior, intermediate, and interventive.
The exterior approach is a more hands-off method, perhaps this beekeeper has a non-Langstroth type hive such as a top-bar beehive. He or she may consider themselves something of a “bee-hoster”, allowing the bees to do as they will, maybe hefting the hive to gauge the amount of honey the bees have stored and observing the bees coming and going from the entrance to determine the health of the colony.
Comparatively the intermediate beekeeper is looking in the top box and between the boxes, inspecting the hive to decipher the bees' messages, while the interventive beekeeper is actually removing and inspecting frames, manipulating them and managing the colony. The level of communication from one level to the next varies, as do the benefits and downsides—which include more disruption and interruption for the colony, and more stings for us.
Minimizing disruption to the hive
Next Dr. Caron talked about how to manipulate colonies, and how to find a balance between the benefits of hive inspections and the disruption they cause. Firstly he suggests using a smoker—siting that often it can take longer to get the smoker going properly than it takes to do what you need to with the hive, but that it's worth the effort—both for the bees' benefit, and yours. Consider the weather; is it cold or windy? Too early or late in the day?
Are you properly dressed for the occasion? Caron says that beekeepers should dress to a comfort level that allows them to be able to focus on good bee-to-beekeeper communication, rather than having to worry about being stung, which is a huge distraction. Begin with the second frame in and be sure to hold frames securely over the open hive—so that any of the younger workers who fall off will fall back into the hive and not be lost.
Beekeeping with intention
“Do you have a reason to inspect today?” Caron went on. The spring and fall are typically the times of year when basic inspections are performed; but at other times throughout the season beekeepers might go through a hive with the intention of controlling swarming. You might open the hive to add a honey super, or to harvest the honey. Perhaps you're performing a mite test or installing some kind of treatment for varroa. Or maybe you're gearing the colony up for winter.
What to look for:
Whenever you're doing a hive inspection beekeepers should be looking at the frames for 4 things: brood, food, health, and equipment. Is the brood healthy looking? What about the sealed brood? It's a bad sign if those cappings look sunken or greasy-looking. Also, keeping in mind that frame-reading will vary from season to season--is the brood pattern okay?
Interestingly enough, Dr. Caron showed the audience a slide of a frame with a questionable brood pattern—it wasn't so spotty that you would say the colony had a bad Queen, but just enough to make you worry. We learned that that frame came from a hive with a hygienic Queen, and that the nurse bees had torn the cappings off brood where mites were breeding in an effort to interrupt the breeding cycle of the varroa.
Beekeepers should be looking for signs that the colony is Queen-right when reading frames. Looking for eggs less than 3 days old can save a lot of time and reduce the disruption to the colony. Caron said, “you don't need to see the Queen unless you need to do something with her.”
But what if there are no eggs present? Then beekeepers should consider the possibilities—it could be that there is no Queen. There may be a new virgin Queen, or a newly mated Queen who is not laying eggs yet. Be sure to look at more than one frame before determining that your colony is Queenless, and also consider the season or the environmental conditions that may be affecting the hive—for example, at the end of the season or in drought conditions the pollen and nectar resources may no longer be available to stimulate brood-rearing in the hive.
Dr. Caron went on to say that you should be able to do a colony reading in 3 frames—the second, third, and fourth frames are usually enough to determine if you have a viable laying Queen, enough food, and that the bees are healthy. And being able to read the colony in just 3 frames minimizes the disruption to the hive.
Practicing good bee stewardship
I want to be a good bee steward. And I like the concept of "minimizing the disruption to the hive" --hive inspections are pretty invasive events for a colony; I mean, how would we feel if someone came along and ripped the roof off of our home and began pulling out the furniture and rearranging things? We'd probably want to sting them too!
When I first got into beekeeping I was obsessed (okay--truthfully, my first year I was just afraid--but after that....), I wanted to be in the beehive every week, poking them and playing with them--I wanted to make sure everything was going well with the colony. But there's a certain amount of aftermath--bees get crushed or lost in the process... This year, with everything going on here at Runamuk with our farm expansion I was more hands-off with the bees, and as a result I missed that window of opportunity to treat for mites--which meant I had to sacrifice my honey crop or lose the colonies.
After listening to Dr. Caron I know that there's a middle-ground there--you can be more involved with your hives and do so in a way that doesn't cause such chaos and devastation to the bees. And that's what we need to strive for as beekeepers.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Dr. Caron's presentation, as well as the lectures from the other speakers at the 2014 meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers!
Mulching is a key aspect of our organic gardening practices here at Runamuk.
Mulch helps to keep the weeds at bay, maintain moisture within the soil, which reduces the need to water, and can contribute valuable organic matter and nutrients, too.
Inspired by Maine farming legend Tom Roberts over at Snakeroot Farm in Pittsfield, Keith and I have decided to offer a drop-off site for locals to bring their leaves, pine-needles, and grass clippings. Roberts saves the community of Pittsfield more than $3000 annually, while at the same time increasing the viability of his own organic farm.
Runamuk can do the same--and since we serve the sister towns of Madison and Anson, we can save our communities twice as much money, right? We're located not quite five miles out of town, and that's less than half the distance our towns are hauling yard wastes to the dump.
The only stipulation we impose is that the leaves, needles and grass clippings not be treated with any sort of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Our mulch needs to be kept au-naturale!
If you live in the towns of Anson or Madison, or close by, instead of taking those leaves to the dump--bring them over to Runamuk Acres and let us put them to good use for you! You'll not only be reducing waste at the local waste management facility, but also supporting a local farmer.
I'm still coming down from the high that the annual meeting gives me. I love the atmosphere, I love learning new things and meeting new people. And when all of that involves talking about bees I am on cloud-9.
To show my support for the Pensobscot County Beekeepers and their northerly venue at the Hampden Academy, I volunteered to help out in the preparations for the conference, and so I left home at 5:30 in the morning in order to get there around 7am. It was cool and dark when I walked down the driveway with my gear--camera, notebooks, pens, water, travel thermous full of hot coffee, and the candle-making set that my own Somerset Beekeepers had purchased for the big raffle.
It was a one-and-a-half hour drive eastward toward Bangor and Hampden, and I watched as the sky brightened from blackness to graduating shades of lighter blue. As the land became illuminated by the early morning sun I could see the rolling fields and farmlands where fog hung low over the fields or corn stubble. Thick mist rose up off the ponds and waterways, and the trees who are beginning to look more and more naked as their leaves fall away reached up into the sky as a blush of pink crept across the horizon when I entered Newport.
In moments like these I feel truly blessed to live in Maine, and fortunate to be able to live the life that I have always dreamed of living. It is a long, hard road that I have chosen--for sure--right now we are faced with insurmountable hurdles and we are struggling to overcome them (and THAT is an entirely different blog-post!)--but I am exceedingly thankful to be here, to have the opportunity to live in such close connection to this land, to nature, and to the bees. I'm grateful to be among those who are working to find solutions to the problems that our world is facing, and proud that I have found it within myself to step up and make a stand alongside these other farmers and beekeepers. We are the change that the world needs. We welcome new-comers with open-arms, so feel free to step up too, and join us!
As I drove toward the meeting location, feeling blessed and grateful and so happy, a wave of sadness washed over me, as I remembered my late father, who had always supported me in these trips to the annual beekeepers' meetings. Daddy always encouraged me to go, made sure I had enough gas money and a little spending money. He was happy for me to be able to do something that I love so much, and he was always eager to hear all about it when I got back. I'll be honest with you--I shed a few tears as I drove along remembering Dad. But he would have wanted me to go and have a good time. So I picked myself up and I did just that.
Upon arrival I was put to work inducting the numerous raffle items alongside several other beekeepers--mostly from the Penobscot and Penquis chapters of the MSBA. Donations of smokers, hive components, bee-themed oven-mits and baby costumes, numerous beekeeping-related books and magazines, entire hive set-ups, packages of bees to be picked up in 2015, beekeeping gear, and even a shiny new extractor--were all lined up on a series of tables along one wall of the cafeteria. The halls were fairly buzzing with excitement and enthusiasm.
More than two-hundred beekeepers came from all over the state, and the Cumberland County chapter, which I believe is the state's largest group, even organized a charter bus for beekeepers in the southern part of the state.
We had some fabulous speakers and presentations, including the young Abigail Sennet--perhaps sixteen or seventeen? who had recently undertaken an independent research study on virgin Queens. There was also the notable Dr. Frank Drummond, a University of Maine scientist who has focused his research on native bees and the pollination of bluberries here in Maine. Dr. Dewey Caron who is now retired, but formerly worked with the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. We were priviledged to have Matt Scott with us, a retired auquatic biologist and one of the original founders of the MSBA. With fifty some-odd years of beekeeping experience Matt is a treasured gem in Maine beekeeper community. And the day was concluded with a presentation by our own former MSBA president Erin Forbes, regarding her SARE-project--a study on the efficacy of local Queens compared to those from the southern part of the country, where so many packaged nucs come to Maine from.
You can bet I will be going into each of the presentations in more detail, so check back soon--but for now I will suffice it to say that each speaker was fantastic, the topics were thoughtfully chosen and eloquently relayed.
Despite the distance, there was a pretty good turn out, if not somewhat less than we would have seen in Portland. I'm beginning to recognize many faces (though I may not always recall their names!), and I am gradually earning a place among my colleagues.
Runamuk's raw honey took 3rd place in the honey-tasting competition, and out of forty or so entries from across the state, I'm pretty darned proud of that! My girls worked hard this summer, and we've got great locations for each of our two apiaries. People rave about my honey and keep coming back for more. If all goes well with this writing competition (and we may soon know what's going to happen with that so stay tuned!), I'm looking forward to investing in more nucleus colonies and equipment to expand the apiary.
By the time I arrived back at home Saturday evening I was tired, but elated. What a great day among new and old friends I'd had--and a yellow ribbon to boot! Check back soon for more info about the talks and presentations that were given!
You'd think I'd be over it by now--all the excitement I feel over the Maine State Beekeepers' Association's annual conference. Like a kid at Christmas I wait all year for the day to arrive when I can make the pilgrimage to the meeting location. And in the vast state of Maine where cities and towns are spread far apart, separated by miles and miles of wilderness, rolling farm-lands, and winding rivers--it is indeed something of a pilgrimage. From my remote home in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, I go to pay homage to my craft--to the bees--the bees who have chosen me to work with them, to guide them through these perilous times as a bee. I go with joy and love in my heart. And I am--ECSTATIC.
My last two trips to the convention have taken me to the great city of Portland, which lies along the coast at the very southern tip of our state. It takes me a good two hours to make that trip. This year however, the Penobscot County chapter has stepped up to host the event--that in itself is a bit of a controversy among beekeepers across the state. Since most of our state's population resides in the southern part of the state, more of Maine's beekeepers are also in the southern part of the state. However we still have many fine beekeepers in the western, central, and northern parts of Maine, some can make the trip south to attend the annual conference--like myself, who make the commitment to go wherever it is held--but for others, the distance cannot be justified. This meeting is for them, and I hope that those beekeepers come out in droves to attend, to unite in solidarity for beekeepers in the rest of the state. For me the trip is still an hour and a half from home.
By all rights, I don't have the time or funds to attend this year. But I don't go far from my family, I'm dedicated to their well-being and I work hard on the farm. I feel also a sense of obligation--obligation to my craft and to the bees, as I previously mentioned, but also obligation as President of the Somerset County chapter of Maine State Beekeepers--to represent our local beekeepers. Sure--the convention is a once-a-year treat for me, but it is also a responsibility that I take seriously.
So today I am making preparations for my pilgrimage. I will prepare my family for my twelve-hour absence--prepping stew for meals, gathering my supplies for the journey, and making sure I have packed my notebook, pens and camera with fresh batteries. I'm a compulsive note-taker, and I will be writing about the day not only for this blog, but also for the MSBA's bi-monthly publication "The Bee-Line" (this will also be my third time covering the event for the journal). I'm borrowing a car, since it is less than ideal to drive the gas-guzzling Runamuk-truck all the way to Bangor and the Hamton Inn--it's good thing my in-laws love me! They've let me use their car the last two years.
I'm anxious and excited, and I can't wait for what tomorrow will bring! Stay tuned for all the details!
Much of society dreads the coming of winter with its frigid temperatures, long dark nights and back-breaking shoveling—yet farmers and homesteaders alike breathe a sigh of relief that the frantic pace of the growing season is behind us. Sure--winter means shoveling walk-ways and thawing frozen water buckets for livestock—but it also means quiet time, and after this first growing season on our new property, working to expand our farming efforts, I am absolutely ready for some quiet time and the slower pace that Old Man Winter brings with him.
Sheep at Runamuk
So much has happened since I last had time to write that it's hard to know where to start. I guess it all began when the sheep arrived on the farm. 4 ewes and a ram of mixed blood-lines were gifted to us. Or cursed upon us—depending on how you want to look at it. The topic of sheep leading up to their arrival was a source of conflict between hubby and I.
You're not always going to agree with your husband, that's just plain fact. And couples who farm together are prone to more disagreements than those who don't. It's just the nature of the beast—he has his image of what this farm should be, and I have mine—the chore for us is to create a farm that blends those images so that we are are both content and satisfied.
Sheep are definitely part of our long-term strategy for Runamuk. Keith and I see them as a viable means of maintaining pastures once the goats and pigs have done the job of reclaiming this overgrown acreage. They absolutely were not on the list for this year. "But they were FREE."
So the sheep came, and we set them up inside the electric net fencing alongside the garden with a temporary shelter. We didn't tell the sheep that the fencing wasn't charged (the charger we'd bought wasn't quite strong enough to power the net-fencing, and the uneven, overgrown terrain grounded the fence out making it utterly useless). They respected the fence for a month or so and did a beautiful job clearing the overgrown weeds—the grasses and goldenrod that threatened to overtake my garden.
I liked having the sheep. The satisfaction that comes with taking care of livestock is unparalleled. Each critter has a unique personality, and the relationship between farmer and animal is one of trust and respect that can be hard to match among people.
Sheep in the garden
Then the sheep realized that we'd been fooling them all that time--that there was a veritable salad bar just next door—and afterall, who wants dinner when they can go right to desert?
Early in the morning on the day of my thirty-fourth birthday I discovered the sheep in the garden. I was devastated. Happy birthday to me.
Within two weeks they'd completely decimated the eighth of an acre that I'd put so much effort into cultivating. My crops for market, for my CSA and for my family were gone. And with sheep in the garden the prospect of planting for fall and winter harvest went out the window. You can't plant seeds if the sheep are going to trample the tender sprouts or munch the seedlings.
Such is the life of the beginning farmer. Who knew sheep had such a taste for vegetables? Seriously—in none of the books we'd read, none of the blogs I've followed along with—did anyone ever mention this. We'd expected such behavior from the goats, but not so much from the sheep. Sigh.
I tried to look on the positive side. The sheep weren't just eating the vegetables, but also the weeds that had gotten away from me. They were also fertilizing the soil. These were both good things, right?
Note: With winter fast approaching, shelter and fencing still to get up before snow falls, the sheep have since been sold to a farm in Albion who are better established than we are. Despite my bitterness over losing the garden, I was sad to see them go. We will have sheep at Runamuk again, but only when the time is right (I hope).
Enter the writing contest
With the garden gone, my time was freed up, and after stumbling upon Harlequin's So You Think You Can Write contest, I decided on impulse to enter the competition. That's right—I write romantic fiction. I have for years. I've kept it to myself, a personal indulgence that I hid like a dirty little secret, only sharing with the world the non-fiction works that I have done—the various articles and the blog.
By entering the first chapter of my novel “Saving Greene Farm” into Harlequin's competition, I effectively came out of the closet as a romance novelist. It was a scary step for me. I'm still frightened of the repercussions, but I wanted to share my stories with the world. Stories about farmers and homesteaders, stories about living more sustainably and finding love along the way. Stories that I would want to read, and stories that I'm certain other people would enjoy reading too.
There are other stories I want to write too. I'd like to write a farm memoir about reclaiming this abandoned and overgrown farm. I aspire to do a non-fiction work about beekeeping, and another about pollinator conservation. I've even contemplated writing and illustrating my own children's books.
But this story came first. The story of a young farmer desperately trying to save her family's 7th-generation farm, and the corporate CEO who steps away from his life in the city to pursue a more meaningful existence. You can read the first chapter here.
Tragedy hits home
It was in the midst of this So You Think You Can Write competition that my father lost his long suffering battle with COPD. For the last several years I've been looking after my father, whose health has slowly deteriorated. Back in March he took a turn for the worse, and all summer, between gardening, and managing and attending the Madison Farmers' Market, I've gone back and forth to Daddy's several times a week to take care of him as well. I've been buying his groceries, making him food, helping out with small chores around his apartment, bringing his laundry home to add to the mound of our own laundry, and coordinating the services of the Hospice volunteers that came to help out.
On October 25th he was taken to the hospital by ambulance, and I joined Daddy's brothers and sisters--my aunts and uncles--his mother (my Nana), and my brother and sister, to sit by his side until he slipped away on the 26th.
My father was a kind-hearted christian man, who had faced more than his fair share of struggles in his fifty-five years. He was devastated when my mother divorced him (I was thirteen at the time), and he never fully recovered. He had dreams and aspirations that he never saw come true, spending his entire life working in the local wood mills until two years ago when he reached the point where he was just too sick to do it anymore. But he was generous and supportive of his children, he loved all three of us dearly, and he was a sweetheart of a grandfather to my two boys. If you're so inclined, you can read his obituary here.
A Top 25 Finalist!
The period for entry into the contest came to a close, with nearly five-hundred first chapters submitted by authors from around the world. The top 25 finalists were to be announced on or around Monday October 6th, and between funeral arrangements, and sorting Daddy's things my manuscript was far from finished, though I kept plucking away at it--a little more every day. When I did not receive “The Call” from Harlequin Monday or Tuesday I figured that I hadn't made the cut, and breathed a sigh of relief. I would continue to finish the novel, take a break from it, then come back to edit the thing, and then finally submit it to Harlequin through the regular channels.
That Thursday we went for a hike through the woods to tape rock maples so that they would be easier to locate next February when we wanted to tap for maple syrup. I was a beautiful and relaxing autumn walk with hubby and my eldest son, the goats and the two dogs. I was stunned to see an email there from Harlequin when I got back home. I'd made the top 25! I was ecstatic! I was overjoyed! I was so proud!
And then panic set in.
I spent the next twenty-four hours writing and editing, right up until the noon-time deadline. But I managed to send in a finished manuscript that definitely could have used a bit more polishing, but was--for all intents and purposes—finished.
Now we wait.
Selling my book would make a huge difference here at Runamuk. Yes--you can absolutely bootstrap your way to success, but a good chunk of money would go a long way in establishing the infrastructure that this farm needs (a priority on the list of investments is fencing!). We have a long way to go, and unfortunately it takes money to make money.
From the 25 finalists, the competition will be narrowed down to 10, and then—by mid-November—a winner will be selected. The grand prize is a two-book publishing contract with Harlequin.
Dedicated to Dad
I am so honored—and validated—to be selected as one of the top 25. Even if my book doesn't win, I know it will be published and when it is, I will dedicate it to my dear father. For a conservative Christian man, to discover that one of his children not only disputed the existence of God and Christ, but also was a liberal granola-crunching back-to-the-land eco-activist, and for that man to continue to support and love such a daughter shows the quality of man that my Daddy was. I never had to wonder if my father loved me, never. He supported my ambitions and my dreams, and despite his debilitating illness he longed to come to the farm and dig in just to help me succeed. For that I will always be grateful that Dana Walter Richards was my father. This one's for you Daddy!
So we'll see what happens next. The top 10 finalists will be selected on November 3rd. Whatever happens, you can be sure this is not the end of the road, so stay tuned folks!