Growing season

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It’s been a long few months leading up to spring and the start of the growing season. Temperatures have fluctuated unpredicatably from one week to the next, sunny and warm one week and frigid and snowing the next. But at last the weather pattern is smoothing out. I can hear the peepers in the pond at night, new shoots are poking up around the farm, and the first blush of green grass is spreading across the fields and pastures.

Big news! I’m applying for a loan!

runamuk apiaryAfter much thought and deliberation I’ve decided to apply for funding to inject some capital into my business so that I can grow it big enough to be able to support Jim’s farm financially in the not-too-distant future.

I can grow my business slowly and avoid debt, but time is against me. The Murphys can’t carry the place indefinitely, so I’ve decided to seek a loan to invest in more bees and equipment in order to scale up to a size that will allow me to generate the income needed to pay the bills and to secure Runamuk’s future on Jim’s property. There are a number of great programs available for beginning farmers and for female farmers, and I have good credit so I’m confident that I will qualify for something.

A li’l backstory

For those who are new to the Runamuk blog, Jim Murphy was the former owner of the farm that I am now leasing. He was killed tragically in a car accident in November 2013 and his property was left in the hands of his brothers. Jim was the product of one of those big baby-boomer families of the post WWII era, so he has many brothers and sisters, but other than a nephew who resides in Madison, they’re all out of state. Just as it is for me, the farm was very precious to Jim, and his family want to uphold the principles and ideals that Jim stood for: sustainable living, friends and family, and community, however it’s very difficult for the Murphys to maintain Jim’s beloved from afar.

Enter me and my pursuit to continue farming in the Madison-Anson area. I reached out to the Murphys after nearly 6 months of searching for a new home for my hives and chickens, and together we negotiated an arrangement that allowed me to get back on my feet following my divorce. The whole of Jim’s family have been nothing but supportive, understanding and encouraging since I moved into the old farmhouse last June, but eventually the property needs to be able to support itself. Runamuk needs to be able to pay the bills, because as much as I love my colleagues at Johnny’s, I do not intend to spend the majority of my life in an office cubicle. I’m a farmer first and foremost and that’s how I want to make my money─not by answering the phone. I don’t even like phones!

The plan in a nut-shell

To that end, I’ve spent the last 4 months updating Runamuk’s business plan, tailoring my plans to suit the land and the resources I have at my disposal. Bees will continue to be Runamuk’s primary focus, with the goal of establishing 10 new colonies this year, and 20 more next year─in addition to making my own nucleus colonies using the methods Mike Palmer spoke about at last fall’s MSBA conference (read more about that in this article). I’ll continue to make beeswax soaps and salves, continue to host workshops, and continue writing, but I’d like to expand my chicken flock for egg-production, and I’d like to further diversify my operation by bringing sheep to the property. Jim’s farm has about 75 acres in open pasture, so my intention is to use rotational grazing of my poultry and sheep to maintain the pasture to create prime bee-forage.

With 10 nucleus colonies ordered and due to arrive in May, I’m right down to the wire on the loan-process. I’ve been working with Farm Credit East which offers a FarmStart Loan with a discounted interest rate for beginning farmers, and the benefit of using livestock and equipment as collateral since many new farmers do not yet own the farms they’re working (like me!). I have a meeting with their representative and Somerset County loan officer this coming Wednesday.

Support staff

Farming is a lot of work and sometimes you need an extra pair of hands in order to get the job done. I’m happy to announce that I have taken on an apprentice! I don’t have the funds available to pay anyone, but in exchange for room and board I managed to wrangle some help around the farm. I also have a prospective college-student looking for work-experience on a farm in exchange for room and board over the summer. Having so much space in Jim’s big old farmhouse is proving to be a huge asset!

In the garden

One of my major goals is to produce enough food to feed my household all year, so I’ve started my tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, and ordered 75 pounds of seed-potatoes along with 350+ onion plants through Johnny’s. I’ve mapped out a garden plan and laid it out according to the available growing space. Using Johnny’s Seed-Starting Date Calculator and their Succession-Sowing Calculator (check out this link to see the various interactive tools and calculators offered on the Johnny’s website) I recorded in my farm-planner my prospective sowing dates for a diverse array of crops.

I’ve also started a myriad of perennial flowers and herbs with the intention of establishing a pollinator garden in the bed that I’ve dubbed “the Rockwall Garden”. As ever before, pollinator conservation continues to be a primary goal in my farming methods. What’s more I use some of these herbs in my salves, so it just makes good financial sense to grow and process them myself rather than buy them in. Things like echinacea, lemon balm, hyssop, lavendar and comfrey─to name a few.

To prepare those new beds for planting I laid cardboard and either mulched hay or leaves on top to smother the grasses and weeds that had grown in since Jim’s absence. The smothering method is slower than tilling, but I planned ahead and started the process last year. It’s working great for the twin-beds, but for the Rockwall Garden the weeds managed to come right up through the cardboard and mulch late last summer. So a few weeks ago I got the jump on it and laid black-plastic over every square inch of that 15’x30′ bed. I prefer to avoid plastic in most cases, but I’m serious about planting that pollinator garden so I wanted to show those weeds that I mean business!

Chickens and eggs!

laying hens at runamukThe chicks that I invested in last fall are now 6.5 months old and with the increasing daylight hours they have begun to lay. The flock is not at full egg-production just yet, but they’re gaining.

Once the pastures green up I’ll move the birds out of the barn and back across the street into a mobile coop with the intention of rotating them around the fields. My apprentice and I have spent considerable time reviewing various models for mobile coops and chicken tractors, and I’ve decided upon John Suscovich’s model. He offers a detailed plan with a materials list that saves me hours of research and planning. Check it out!

Note: For those who don’t know, I am a BIG fan of John’s. I avidly follow his “Growing Farms” podcast, and I watch all of John’s YouTube videos which are super informative. I highly recommend any beginning farmer (or even established farmers) follow John’s work.

Improving marketing & distribution

runamuk's mailboxI can sell my soaps and salves, eggs and excess produce at the Madison Farmers’ Market, but to increase sales I need to get my products further out into the world. I’ve been working on a product list to send to local retailers, and I’ll be making some changes to Runamuk’s online shopping cart to better promote my beeswax products on the world wide web. I’m also working on a media kit for the blog in hopes of recruiting local sponsors in exchange for ad-space. But I’m most excited about making a roadside sign for Runamuk; the mailbox is the closest Runamuk has come to having a business sign, and I think it’s long overdue.

Leaning my farm

At the repeated urging of John Suscovich in his podcasts and videos, I bought Ben Hartman’s “The Lean Farm“. With so much going on I’ve only gotten about halfway through the book, but the concept of reducing waste on the farm has me re-evaluating how I work and manage Runamuk. When I finally manage to finish the book I’ll do a review on the blog, but right now I’m implementing improved recordkeeping and data-mining, cleaning and organizing the farm to improve productivity, and looking for ways to eliminate waste to increase profitability.

Market season!

madison farmers marketIn between all of this, I’ve been plugging away at the Madison Farmers’ Market, for which I serve as market manager. Our local farmers’ market is held on Sundays at the Main Street Park in Madison between 10am and 2pm beginning May 1st and running through October. I’ve recently attended a workshop hosted by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets to learn how to implement and use their Harvest Bucks program so that our market can offer bonus bucks for fruits and vegetables to SNAP shoppers. Our vendors gathered together last week for a paint-party to create some new market signs, and the town of Madison sprang for a new banner for us, so I designed that with our market logo and got the banner up on the fence at the park. We have some exciting things planned this year, but that’s a whole separate blog-post, lol!

Stay the course

Things are a little tentative right now; there’s a lot riding on it and time is not on my side. It’s hard to say if I’ll actually get this loan─like I said I have good credit, I’ve worked hard to keep it that way, but I don’t like to count my chicks before they’ve all hatched. I have a plan B and a plan C waiting in the wings, but naturally plan A is the preferred course. All I can do is to stay the course. I’ll continue to put my best foot forward, continue to work hard, and continue to have faith that things will all work out. Stay tuned folks!

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