When I first started selling vegetables nearly 8 years ago, I was a stay-at-home homeschooling mom to 2 rowdy young boys. I wanted to earn an income without having to get a job outside the home, and what started with a 10-family CSA has grown and transformed into a diverse apiary operation with supporting acts from egg production, vegetable gardening and writing.
Studious research, careful planning, dogged pursuit of goals, and lots of hardwork and patience has grown Runamuk to this precipice. We’ve climbed the ladder, one year at a time, taken the knocks and kept on going, and now we stand poised to receive this storybook farm where I hope to continue my work, and inspire more farmers, gardeners, homesteaders and homeowners to employ bee-friendly practices wherever they are. At long last, I can finally begin in earnest this important work. Read on for Part 2 of our 2017 Year’s End Review: the Farm….
Johnny’s vs Gardening On the Side
We all have strengths and weaknesses. I am a compulsive “Doer”. I almost always want to be “doing something”, working on something and being productive. It’s incredibly difficult for me to be in a cubicle in an office building for 8 and a half hours a day─sitting there. It was a big adjustment when I first began working for Johnny’s Selected Seeds 3 years ago, after I’d been a stay-at-home homeschooling and homesteading mamma for 12 years.
Johnny’s hires local gardeners and farmers to staff their research farm, the offices, and especially to answer the phones in their Call Center. Not only do they sell seeds and tools, Johnny’s offers information─to assist gardeners and farmers in successfully growing food. That’s what I do for the company, and it can be very rewarding sometimes. January through June the Call Center is a madhouse as growers from all over the world rush to purchase seeds, potatoes, onions, berry plants and tools from the Maine-based seed company. Johnny’s has grown exponentially over the last decade and has become synonymous with the small and organic farm movement.
To meet the demand during the busy season Johnny’s hires extra help referred to as “Seasonals”. These are often local farmers like myself, with their own farming operations, and that’s how I was hired. Except I’ve loitered about the establishment a bit, working 1 or 2 days a week even through the growing season, after all the other Seasonals had returned to their farms. Following my divorce I needed that supplemental income. They’ve offered me full-time more than once, and I’m sure if I set my mind to it I could land a position in a different part of the company─on the research farm perhaps, or in the warehouse where the seeds are packed and shipped. But the Call Center is the only part of the company with the flexibility to be able to allow me to work just part-time. With my own farm to look after and children too, each day that I spend away is a day taken away from Runamuk. For Runamuk, my time is a precious commodity.
This spring, I decided I was not going to be left behind when the other farmers left for the summer. To take the place of my Johnny’s paycheck I offered my skills as a gardener to my local community and lined up more than half a dozen clients. I bade farewell to my colleagues and the office, drove home in the sun, and seemingly the next day the spring rains began.
When it wasn’t raining I enjoyed the work immensely. Not all of the clientele I’d lined up followed through with their job offers, but the 2 that did were great folks to work for. A friend of mine in the Madison community who has a large family and a homestead of their own who just needed some extra help, and an older couple in Skowhegan who have an immaculate yard with beds of gorgeous irises and lilies, as well as an assortment of shrubs, trees, and other flowering things. Marvelous folks.
But the rainy days took their toll on my bank account, and I discovered that gardening as a side-business was just another business to run. By mid-summer I was back to working 2 days a week in the Call Center because my finances required the stability of the paycheck from Johnny’s.
Following the drought in the fall of 2016 I had opted to leave the fall honey stores on my hives going into the winter. Inevitably not all of my hives survived the winter, and I was able to harvest some of the honey I’d previously written off. For the first time in 2 years I was able to sell honey at the farmers’ market, and those sales in combination with the exceedingly low overhead at Paul’s were a boon to Runamuk’s financial situation.
I was determined to continue growing my operation in spite of the set back of not actually having a property to farm on. I replaced lost hives with packaged bees purchased from Peter Cowin of Hampden, and brought a number of nucleus colonies from Bob Egan in Skowhegan to add to my own surviving colonies. These colonies all built up well this spring, and with adequate rainfall we had a decent honey harvest in the summer, allowing Runamuk to offer local customers the choice between the dark, fall honey, and the recently extracted spring honey, which is lighter and sweeter in flavor.
In addition, I tried my hand at raising my own Queens for the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping. The intention of learning this valuable skill was to be able to make my apiary more sustainable, and inherently more viable. It was incredibly rewarding to see those long slender Queens, and I’m looking forward to devoting more time to Queen-rearing next season.
Farm & Garden
The farm aspect of Runamuk currently consists of it’s chicken flock for eggs, which we have traditionally sold at the farmers’ market as well as direct from the farm. While we do grow a few vegetables to sell at market, the underlying focus of the Runamuk garden is to feed it’s farmer─myself and my family─a significant undertaking in itself.
At our present location we are able to free range the chickens, who happily scratch up the forest underbrush hunting for greens and insects. However with no pasture to speak of, and less than ideal coop-conditions, I opted to hold off on buying new chicks this year. Not unexpectedly, we have experienced a significant decrease in egg production as the flock ages. I opted to hold off on replacing the birds til after the #GreatFarmMove #theFinalChapter and had intended to slaughter the oldest birds to send to “Freezer Camp”, however timing was prohibitive and I was only able to get a handful of meat put away.
This is where friends and community are a huge asset. My friend Sonia over at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison had a couple of pigs to process and needed help. In exchange for our participation in a good old fashioned hog-killing party, Paul and I received half a pig in the form of various cuts, packaged and frozen for us to add to our “Freezer Camp”. We also received some venison, moose, and bear meat from Paul’s family, who are avid hunters and had good luck this hunting season. I think with our largely plant-based diet I should be able to stretch the meat til spring; what a blessing!
The garden at Paul’s place was a first-year plot that we had to reclaim from the raspberries that had cropped up following some selective cutting done several years ago. It’s a very sandy patch of land off the Ward Hill Road in Norridgewock that Paul owns adjacent his parents, grandfather, and aunt. The oak trees love it and the sound of the acorns raining on his tin roof in the fall is fantastic, but it took some adjustment on my part to grow crops there. At previous locations I have grown in heavy clay soil, fine loam, and somewhat sandy conditions, but nothing compared to the dune-sand (not an exaggeration) we have here.
Keeping things adequately watered was the biggest challenge and Paul made it his priority to keep plants alive utilizing a second well to feed the series of soaker hoses and drip tubing he’d rigged up. We also scored several loads of wood chips from a local arborist, and everything was heavily mulched to retain moisture.
In this sandy garden we produced some very fine-looking onions, green beans, dry beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, amaranth, lettuces, radishes, beets, summer and winter squashes, and the best crops of carrots and cucumbers I’ve grown in all my 20 years of gardening. We managed to produce enough vegetables to eat primarily out of the garden all summer, and we’re still eating our own vegetables even now. I’ll let you know when we run out, but I think I almost have enough to get us through to April when I can sow the first crops of the 2018 season and once again eat from the garden.
I do less in the way of market gardening then I once did, choosing instead to focus my efforts on the bees, but I still grow for myself and I like to have the diversity at my stand during the market season so I take a few vegetables every now and again. When Johnny’s presented “Forum”, a short-day onion available in the form of sets, I saw an opportunity to get onions to the market before the other veggie vendors and perhaps corner the market on that particular crop. Forum did beautifully; I managed to get them to size up by July and I had big beautiful, fresh-looking onions in bunches well ahead of the competition. Customers ate them up. Literally lol.
Blog & Writing
For me, writing is as much about self-expression as it is a form of activism. Afterall, I am a devout environmentalist, seeking to affect change by first starting with myself. It is my hope that by boldly leading the way and bravely sharing my story, I will inspire others to follow suit.
Why should I do this? Why subject myself to scrutiny and judgement?
For love of course.
If you have been following along with my story, you know that I have a deep affinity for nature. A connection with the Earth that has never been matched. I seek to protect what I love─the beauty and wonder of our magnificent planet─this place we call home.
It is this love that compels me to take action in the face of the injustices and the maltreatment of this planet. I cannot sit idly by and ignore the grievances, so I work to change my own behaviors first. I’ve given of myself to my community, affecting change on a local level, and I write to reach a broader audience in hopes of swaying more people to also take up the cause.
This year I wrote 18 articles, 29 journal entries related to my journey as a beginning and female farmer─as well as my progress in pursuit of a forever-farm home. I updated 4 older articles, and published 1 guest post to the blog─for a total of 52 pieces of writing in 2017.
The readership of the Runamuk blog grew from little more than 300 to over 3500 subscribers; THAT’s pretty huge. We continued our relationship with our sponsor, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, who worked with us to connect one lucky grower with a new Jang JP1 Seeder. I was pretty proud of that, but coming in at 36 on the list of Top 100 Homesteading Blogs really took the cake.
Reader input invited: I’ve been toying with the idea of expanding into YouTube videos. There are several farmers I watch regularly on YouTube─ John Suscovich of Farm Marketing Solutions and Richard Perkins of Ridgedale Permaculture I follow religiously. I also watch Curtis Stone and Diego Footer on occasion, but I haven’t found similar valuable content distributed by female farmers and so I’m considering moving to fill that niche.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact gender can have on the farmer. Is it really an issue? Or is it just my perception that it’s an issue? Are other women feeling it too? Or is it just me who feels the effects of gender bias in this male-dominated career/world? To get some outside perspective I recently bought “The Rise of Women Farmers & Sustainable Agriculture” and “Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers“, and I’ve been listening a lot to the Female Farmer Podcast. So the idea is to make videos for women, by women…
I worry though that I don’t have the same aptitude for talking so casually on camera that seems to come naturally to these guys. I’ve always maintained a motto of “practice makes perfect”, even when it comes to something like socializing, but do you think one could overcome their innate social awkwardness to do justice to the service of providing valuable content via YouTube? Would it be worth my time and effort I wonder? And to what degree would it detract from my work here on the Runamuk blog, which has come so far?
Yet it seems that much of mainstream society no longer wants to read and prefers to watch videos instead. It’s possible that expanding Runamuk to YouTube would grow our audience even more. Maybe we can reach more gardeners, homesteaders and farmers and help them to learn the skills to be more self-sufficient. Maybe I can inspire even more folks to live sustainable lifestyles, and teach the world to be more bee-friendly.
What do you think? Should I try my hand at making YouTube videos? Leave me a comment at the end of this post to share your thoughts…
Madison Farmers’ Market
As Director of the Madison Farmers’ Market I devoted a lot of time and energy to our local association of farmers. Food has become increasingly important to me: real food, local food, organic food and food that hasn’t been modified or coated with chemicals. Access to real and local food in my hometown community is almost as crucial to me as pollinator conservation. Did you know that?
This was the Madison Farmers’ Market’s 5th season. When I first embarked to create a farmers’ market in my hometown it was just myself and 1 other vendor sitting alongside Main Street. The market has grown to 9 now, with a devout following of regular customer and a blossoming community centered around real and local food. Our customers tell us we are the friendliest market of all those they visit, and we pride ourselves on that welcoming atmosphere.
After 4 years growing our market, the collective group of farmers that make up the Madison Farmers’ Market finally decided the time had come to switch from a Sunday market to Saturday. The positive reaction from the community was palpable. We saw a significant increase in traffic at the market this season as more people took advantage of the market to stock up on fresh veggies, baked goods, grass-fed meats, goat cheeses, raw honey and more─all grown within 20 miles of Madison.
Last year we had some serious complications with the company who was handling our credit card transactions, which effectively allows the farmers’ market to also accept EBT from SNAP shoppers. This year, with the help of the folks at the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, we were able to line up a new processing company, new equipment, and an improved system at the Madison Farmers’ Market. It made a world of difference.
Our EBT program has been instrumental in attracting new customers to our growing market, and it makes shopping local affordable for more households within our community. By participating in the Maine Harvest Bucks program our market is able to offer SNAP shoppers matching bonus bucks for their purchases with EBT; they are then able to use those bonus bucks to purchase more fruits and vegetables. At the end of every market day my farmers receive a check for transactions processed by the market on their behalf.
The market invested in it’s own tent and table this year, having previously been operated out of the Runamuk tent, and it was dubbed “the Information Booth”. I took on the responsibility of setting up and manning the Info Booth, and I found that we could use the station as a way to further cultivate the sense of community that our farmers have grown in Madison.
Inspired by the idea of a Kid’s Club I gleaned at the annual Maine Farmers’ Market Convention, I decided to launch a program of our own. I visited elementary schools in Madison, Anson, and North Anson alongside Cheryl Curtis of Somerset Health to pitch the idea to my target audience. The children were excited by my enthusiasm I think, and we saw a number of them throughout the course of the summer, come to solve our weekly market riddle and participate in silly games and activities we crafted for them.
This was a very good year for the Madison Farmers’ Market. I am so proud of the progress we’ve made!
Biggest Lessons Learned
At the start of this year I was all but ready to give up on farming. As a mother I’ve moved my children around too much in the name of my own dreams and desires and I wasn’t feeling particularly good about where we’d ended up. Yet it was that same maternal drive that compelled me to take up the cause once more, and to lay it all on the line one more time in hopes of giving my family the life I’d always imagined. Thanks to that perseverance we will be moving to the Swinging Bridge Farm in 2018, where we will begin a new chapter in the Runamuk saga.
3 biggest lessons I learned as a farmer/beekeeper in 2017:
- Working locally as a gardener was just another business to manage.
- Start earlier in the season with the Queen-rearing project.
- You can grow your own food just about anywhere, if you set your mind to it.
Totally Worth It
I’ve been gardening since I was 16, becoming increasingly zealous about homesteading as a means of sustainable living, but it’s been just these last 8 years I’ve been working toward earning an income from farming. I’ve faced the same challenges other beginning farmers face, including the learning curve, lack of capital, and land access. I’ve also faced challenges specific to women farmers: gender bias, the demands of children and family upon my time, and lack of support. Even some that are unique to me alone─a child on the Autism Spectrum, divorce, and the decision to base my business on bees at a time when keeping bees alive is challenging at best. Here I am now, at the conclusion of 2017 fresh with the victory of the FSA’s approval of my loan request, and on the cusp of closing on the purchase of my very own #foreverfarm.
I hope that the biggest take-away from my story is to never give up. Farming is hard and can certainly be challenging at times, but the rewards are so sweet and so tremendous that I promise─if you stick it out─it will all be worth it in the end. Carpe diem, my friend. Seize the day.
Thanks for following along! Check back in 2018 for more of Runamuk’s story as we get ready to move to the Swinging Bridge Farm in New Portland, Maine!