A full rotation of the Earth around the sun has brought us once again to the end of the calendar year. It’s been a busy year for Runamuk, with some ups and some downs too, and some life altering moments. Before we shift our focus to 2017 and all that the new year may bring our way I’d like to take a moment to review what went well this year on our apiary and farm─and what did not.
Right out the gate 2016 brought a budding romance with a former CSA-customer of mine, and looking back on it now I suppose that set the tone for the whole year. Paul was eager to live the homesteader’s life, a more self-sufficient life, and an honest life, and he made up his mind pretty quickly that he wanted to do it with me. On the other hand, I was fresh out of one relationship and my divorce still a raw wound so I was fairly cautious about bringing a new person into my life and onto my farm. We decided on a 1-year trial “apprenticeship”, though Paul has been much more than my apprentice from the very start, lol. Over the course of the year we developed a strong partnership, which I’m confident will serve Runamuk well as we continue to grow the apiary together.
In the apiary 4 out of 5 hives survived the winter of 2015-2016. When statistics indicate beekeepers are losing anywhere from 30 to 37% of their hives each winter, to have just a 20% loss was a big victory for Runamuk. I’ve been eager to grow my apiary, with big plans to expand and spent months last winter working on my business plan. It became apparent pretty quickly though that Runamuk just doesn’t have the kind of numbers that financial institutions want to see when they lend money. That’s one of the downsides to bootstrapping your business I guess.
Farming of any kind is a lot of investment up-front and it can take several years before the farmer starts seeing a return. For first generation farmers like me there’s a steep learning curve and the first years in business tend to involve some stumbling as we learn on-the-job. All this is especially true in beekeeping where all of the investment is in the hive-equipment and the gear you need to manage the bees, and where it can take new beekeepers half a decade to really grasp the intricacies of beekeeping today.
So the realities of the business world hit home for me; afterall, farming is a business just like other businesses. If you can’t show that you’re generating a positive income, even the USDA won’t give you money. Sure there are a number of programs to help beginning farmers or female farmers like me, but they still want to see those positive numbers.
And of course, there was the insecurity of my place there at Jim’s farm, when just 9 months after I signed their lease agreement my landlords decided to sell the property. Brief dealings with the Maine Farmland Trust revealed the bias that exists within the Maine agricultural sector, and the realities of business and money reared their ugly heads to create a road-block that ultimately put that farm out of my reach. This was the life altering moment when I chose to walk away, to say goodbye to a property which was, perhaps, the love of my life, in favor of the lifestyle that I need to live in order to be happy. I will never forget that piece of land, or the way it made me feel to be there, the plans I had to bring that iconic farm back to life, and how much I loved it.
Despite that set back we managed to bring 10 nucleus colonies to the apiary this year, in addition we made a number of our own nucs by breaking up one of the four hives that survived the winter. I also caught a swarm and successfully hived it. We went into the 2016 winter with 15 colonies, at last check we’d lost 2 so current count is 13.
This was Runamuk’s second year with no honey crop. Last year, following the brutal winter of 2014-2015 when my hives all died, I brought in 5 nucs and took no honey from those new colonies. This year Maine experienced drought conditions that were pretty severe in some parts of our state; as a result the flowers were not producing much nectar and what little honey the bees made I distributed between the hives to ensure their winter survival. Runamuk customers have been asking for honey and while they were all disappointed by our lack of available honey, most were understanding and patient.
I made more soap than ever before this year and even expanded my soap-line to offer new seasonal fragrances that were only available while supplies last, which was a big hit with Runamuk’s dedicated patrons and shoppers at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Increasing our distribution of Runamuk’s beeswax products had been a big goal for 2016; I managed to put together a store on our website, I listed soaps and salves with The Pick-Up in Skowhegan, and North Star Orchards sold my products in their farm-store too.
With my part-time off-the-farm job in addition to the #greatfarmmove, I found it difficult to maintain the pace and to allocate the time required to keep up with the soaps and salves. I couldn’t dedicate the amount of time necessary to photograph each product and write descriptions for online listings, and to top it off problems with the shipping-program we used on the Runamuk site made our online store unattractive to shoppers. We’ve taken the store off the site for maintenance and intend to have it back early in the new year.
I feel like this was a big year for my efforts to promote pollinator conservation. I only did a couple of small local presentations over the course of the summer: one with the children of the Solon Summer Rec program, one for the robotics team of the homeschool association at the Crossroads Bible Church in Madison, and one presentation for the folks at Johnny’s. But there was my talk at the Common Ground Fair, that was a pretty big achievement─and then the new beneficial-insect symbol in the Johnny’s catalog that I was fortunate to be part of. These successes have spurred something new and exciting coming to Runamuk; you’ll get that news in an up-coming blog-post so stay tuned!
Homestead, Farm & Garden
For years I’ve been working toward an increasingly self-sufficient diet of unprocessed and conscientiously produced foods. This year Paul and I made some big strides together choosing to eat less meat, and more vegetables, grains and legumes. We’re determined to feed ourselves and have been eating a lot of foods we’ve either grown or raised ourselves, foraged for, or purchased/bartered locally from other farmers we know. I still make a weekly shopping list for Hannaford, but I rarely spend more than $35 there, and that’s usually in the form of butter, coffee, and other staples─you know, like toilet paper─or wine.
This year, to feed ourselves we grew our own sprouts and shoots, delved into the complexities of sour-dough baking, we foraged for fiddleheads and ramps, Paul went fishing and we harvested so much asparagus from Jim’s garden that we stank when we peed! We were even able to sell some at the farmers’ market. We grew a great crop of early peas and greens; I fell in love with Cherokee lettuce I grew from seed I got at Johnny’s (check this out!). I planted a big and beautiful garden and sowed 80 pounds of seed potato.
Despite my attempt to choke out the weeds with a first-year cover crop of buckwheat, the quack-grass was undeterred, but I was determined. My dedication to weeding faultered however when I realized I was going to let go my love affair with Jim’s farm. The weeds seized their opportunity and quickly took over the garden.
Lack of rain meant we were trying to irrigate the crops, using both the well and the pond. Paul set up a complex series of hoses and sprinklers, soaker-hoses and pumps, but even still it was a challenge to keep the crops moist in the sandy soil that made up the big garden. It took forever for my carrots to germinate, and then they grew so slowly that I forsake them; Paul pulled up a few slender carrots and a number of thumb-sized nubs on moving day.
Onions didn’t want to grow, my squash patch suffered, and though we grew some beautiful tomato plants with manure procured from friends at Willow Lane Farm in Harmony, we experienced an acute case of blossom end-rot that affected nearly the entire crop. We did however manage to get a harvest of early maturing potatoes: our Red Norlands did very well, and we had some Adirondack Blue and strawberry paw potatoes too. I had a third of my garden planted in potatoes, and half of the potato patch was dedicated to Kennebec potatoes for winter storage. Because they’re a late-maturing variety they suffered more from the drought and weed-pressure. I also ran out of time to harvest due to the move.
Paul brought bunnies to the farm and I attended a workshop at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison to learn how to process the meat-rabbits when the time comes. I kept a pair of rabbits in the garden for the summer, but never managed to construct the rabbit-tractor I wanted for the other pair of bunnies so I wound up rotating the rabbits between the barn and the one outdoor crate.
This year I finally went to the Maine Artisan Bread Fair that’s been held annually at the Skowhegan Fair Grounds for 10 years now. I brought home the abandoned kitten, and 30 more chicks for egg-production. Later in the fall, with help from Ernie and Gwen Hilton─good friends and dedicated supporters to Runamuk (and me), who live and farm at Hyl-Tun Farm just a mile up the road from where I was at Jim’s there in Starks─we sent 30 birds to freezer-camp: theirs and mine.
Storing the food we’d produced became another issue─especially once we’d made the move from Jim’s big old farmhouse where there was plenty of space, to Paul’s small mobile home. We’re making the best of it and have stashed the freezer full of food, the boxes of potatoes, and the bin of garlic, in the back bedroom as far away from the woodstove as possible, with the pumpkins and squashes lined up along the floor at the base of the wall.
Blog & Writing
Including this post, I’ve written 15 articles on a variety of topics from beekeeping and what kind of plants are good to grow for pollinators, to the broken food system and what resources peeps at Johnny’s Selected Seeds recommend for beginning farmers. I wrote 34 updates chronicling my journey as a beginning farmer and beekeeper here in Maine. This post will round 2016 out with a total of 50 pieces of writing.
Of course the big news regarding the Runamuk blog and my writing is our new relationship with Johnny’s as our blog-sponsor. Hooray for Johnny’s! I’m hoping to be able to bring on several more sponsors in 2017 for the chance to promote some great local─and green─Maine businesses.
Before the divorce my husband worked off-the-farm and supported our household, while I labored in the garden, with the bees or with goats or children (which often are much more difficult than goats OR bees!); I had a lot more time then for volunteer-work. Since the divorce I’ve been working either full or part-time off-the-farm, all while continuing to farm, keep bees, and homestead. Honestly it’s been more of a struggle to keep up with everything these last couple of years. After 5 years serving as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers, our county’s chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association, I finally stepped down. Unfortunately our group had fizzled and we were no longer seeing the attendance we once did. When I stepped down no one else stepped up to lead the group and the Somerset Beekeepers, sadly enough, has disbanded.
That being said, I’ve left myself available to the UME Somerset County Cooperative Extension as a beekeeping liaison of sorts, in the event the community should have need of me. It’s a good thing I did too! Round about August there was a gentleman beekeeper out in Embden who was working with his bees when he was overtaken suddenly by an allergic reaction to the bee stings. He was taken to the emergency room and his hives were left uncovered, the bees exposed to the elements. This gentleman’s daughter called the extension office, who in turn called me; so Paul and I drove over to Embden to close his hives for him.
Madison Farmers’ Market
This was the second year that our local farmers’ market was able to accept EBT transactions from SNAP shoppers. We were able to draw in many new shoppers thanks to our participation in the Maine Harvest Buck’s program. Funding we received from the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets enabled the Madison market to give a dollar-for-dollar bonus to customers who purchased food items using their EBT. So if a SNAP shopper spent $20 at the market they received $20 worth of Harvest Bucks vouchers that could be used at any point throughout the season for the purchase of fruits and vegetables.
In Madison there was a new local food ordinance passed which opened up new opportunities for farmers growing and selling food there. Our market supported this movement, however we’re also cautious of it and have discussed at length how this impacts the market and how we want it to apply to farmers selling food at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Above all else we want to be offering fresh, locally produced food that is safe for our friends, families, and communities to eat; all of Madison’s farmers strive to meet the regulations outlined by the authorities for all of the food and products we sell.
We had a hellova time with the company who processes our transactions at market. Last year we enrolled in the USDA’s flagship program to be able to accept EBT at the market; we received the equipment and first year of processing free in exchange for a 3-yr contract with a company called WorldPay who would process those electronic transactions for us. We were supposed to have a reduced fee this year, and then next year the market would pay the full sum for the service provided.
Regrettably, WorldPay was impossible to work with: I would call to make changes to our account so that the market could receive payment for the transactions we were processing at-market, wait on hold for 40 minutes before finally getting a representative, then I’d jump through hoops trying to get them the paperwork they wanted, but the changes were never implemented. One day I was on the phone all day going back and forth with WorldPay when I should have been outside working my bees. It was a nightmare.
After repeated attempts to resolve the issue we finally opted to cancel our account with WorldPay. We never received payment for any of the transactions processed at-market this season, and I wound up having to pay my farmers for those EBT and credit card sales out of market-funds. The WorldPay fiasco put our farmers’ market more than $500 in the red this year. Currently I’m working to get a new system in place before the start of the 2017 market-season.
It was difficult for me to keep up even with my work for the farmers’ market while I’m working off-the-farm, but after letting go of the Somerset Beekeepers I was all the more determined to hang on to the market. I did my best to prioritize and put the Harvest Bucks program first and foremost in my list of duties, but managing of meetings, recordkeeping, and promotion of the market and special events suffered some this year. Thankfully the farmers that make up our market have all become close friends and they’ve been understanding and supportive over the last 2 years.
Overall the farmers at the Madison Farmers’ Market dubbed the season a success. They were pleased with the increase in traffic we saw as a result of the Harvest Bucks program. We were able to extend our market into December thanks to an alliance with the Somerset Abbey that allows us to be inside every other Sunday from November til Christmas. We’re all looking forward to the new year and the coming season.
Biggest Lessons Learned
- Recordkeeping is as crucial to farming as is planting the seed that grows the crop. Get organized and make the time to document your work, your expenses, and your sales (income).
- You need good numbers to get any kind of financing or funding─as in positive income. In farming it’s important to have an instant source of income while your long-term crops mature: that’s why many farmers produce annual vegetables when they first start out.
- Owning the land you farm on is the most secure option for farmers. Do whatever it takes to make that happen: improve your credit score, look for a lease-to-own option, reduce your expectations and look at ugly-duckling properties which are typically more affordable. Land-insecurity in farming is hugely detrimental to your business, and leases not geared toward agricultural activity can be your downfall.
- Business is business. Farming is a business just any other; take it seriously or no one will take you seriously. When it comes to such crucial matters as land-leases that make up the very foundation of your farm, assume nothing─be sure to cover all details and get it in writing before committing.
Closing the Door on 2016
I feel like this fall, over the course of the encroaching winter, I’ve examined my life and let go of a lot of old baggage. I’ve closed the door on one chapter and I’m really looking forward to this new phase as I continue to grow my apiary and farm here in Norridgewock with Paul. What you’ve been reading here is just one woman’s story in the pursuit to generate her income through farming─the farming of bees, no less. I am not unique in the obstacles I’ve faced; land-access and lack of capital are 2 of the biggest challenges beginning farmers have to overcome if they are to succeed. Any individual determined to bootstrap their way to success in farming is going to have similar stories, and not all of us will make it. Some will give up.
But I am still here. Bring on 2017!