Farming as a Way Forward for Maine’s Economically Depressed Regions

dharma farm

Not too long ago I attended a town meeting in Madison in which I told selectmen that I see farming as a way forward for our economically depressed region of Maine. A new zoning ordinance had been passed in Madison that affects agriculture in my hometown, and I was there in official capacity as a representative of the Madison Farmers’ Market. It is my hope that people will see the rationale of this concept. We can revitalize our rural economies through agriculture. Farming IS a viable way forward; I truly believe this.

dharma farm
Jeff Knox of Dharma Farm in Washington, ME. Photo credit: Dharma Farm. Find them online today!

Even in the midst of the local foods movement, it’s difficult to persuade the mainstream public that farming is a viable option for regional growth, and I doubt my words bore much weight with Madison’s Board of Selectmen. For far too long society has viewed farming as work that any simpleton can do; work that involves long hours of toil and drudgery, and results in little pay and a low-quality of life. Farming has not been a career choice parents generally wanted for their children. I’m taking this opportunity to present 7 reasons why I believe in farming as the way forward for Maine’s economically depressed regions.

1. Support Local Economies

Supporting family farms and local community food systems is a powerful strategy for jumpstarting our fragile economy and strengthening communities across America. Agriculture is a frequently overlooked source of economic development and job creation.

The economic impact of the nation’s food producers stretch far beyond the limits of their farms and ranches. Food systems link farmers with other enterprises, from input providers for seed and fertilizers, to retail chains, restaurants and everything in between. Every year consumers spend over $1 trillion on food grown by US farmers and ranchers, yet the real value of agriculture to the nation lies much deeper.

Farmers are the backbone of our nation, the first rung on the economic ladder; studies show that when farms thrive, Main Street businesses and local communities thrive too. Consider farming as a way forward.

2. Cultivate Food Security

farming as a way forward
Harvest-time at Daisy Chain Farm, Belfast, Maine. Photo credit: Daisy Chain Farm. Find them online!

Studies show that access to healthy, affordable nutritional food is an issue in urban areas, as well as rural regions. Michelle Kaiser, researcher in the School of Social Work in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, says:

People don’t think of rural areas as places without healthy foods. However, many people live miles from the nearest store, and this makes them less likely to buy fresh, perishable foods because they buy groceries less often. In urban areas, many people buy their food from restaurants or convenience stores, where nutritious food is scarce. Even if there is a nearby grocery store, many people don’t have access to reliable transportation to those stores.

Increasing the availability of whole-foods, such as fruits and vegetables, enables people to avoid processed, unhealthy foods.

What’s more, local food production enables a country or region to overcome food insecurity and recover from emergencies. When disaster strikes, distribution channels can fail and supermarkets can become out-of-stock in short order. By focusing on farming as a way forward, we’re investing in our own long-term food security.

3. Stewardship Opportunities

A 2012 report by the UN titled “Food & Agriculture: the Future of Sustainability” suggests that significant investment in small and medium-sized farms is needed to improve the overall health and viability of our food system worldwide.

Small family farms have been shown to be the most effective, per acre, at ecological stewardship, biodiversity and production of nutrition. These small farms are better able to maintain the quality of soil, air and water, compared to large scale agriculture, which degrades soil and water quality in the short term, reducing the biological health of the soil ecosystem, and also making them more vulnerable to disease, drought, crisis and collapse.

Farming key to reducing greenhouse gases and improving our overall health with better food options. It’s time to support these small farms and invest in local agriculture.

4. Increased Self-Reliance

Fostering local agriculture increases a community’s self-reliance and reduces our overall dependence on Industry. Small farms are teaching facilities where people can learn that there’s something everyone can do right now, to improve their own self-sufficiency and live healthier lives. Your local farmers can teach you everything from how to cook the vegetables and meats you buy at the farmers’ market, to how to bake your own bread, how to compost, and how to grow your own food─farmers are always willing to share their knowledge and skill-sets.

Increased self-reliance allows us to avoid more processed foods, live healthier, more meaningful lives, and save money too. These skills give us independence from big Industry, which doesn’t always have our best interests at heart, and affords communities a measure of security knowing that if something were to happen tomorrow to prevent the distribution of food and goods to the supermarkets, we have the capability of providing for ourselves and those around us. Farming as a way forward allows us more independence.

5. Build Community

Scientific studies indicate that food, specifically when shared and experienced with others, has also shown to benefit our minds, enrich our feelings toward other people, and it can increase people’s trust and cooperation with one another. Social psychologist, Shankar Vedantam states:

“To eat the same foods as another person suggests that we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies. People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they are. And then trust, cooperation—these are just the consequences of feeling close to someone.”

It may not seem like a ground-breaking discovery, but sharing food with other people can have longstanding effects and should be utilized as a powerful tool in our community-building arsenal. Food has an amazing ability to draw us together. We all have powerful memories of being cooked for, and those acts of generosity and love run deep within us─they inspire us, and compel us to reciprocate. Through food we can foster relationships, motivate people and build community.

6. Vibrant Farming Community

farming as a way forward for economically depressed regions
Seedling production at Bumbleroot Organic Farm, Windham, Maine. Photo credit: Bumbleroot Organic Farm.  Find them online!

Maine has a longstanding agricultural legacy that pre-dates the arrival of European settlers, and at one time our great state was considered the bread-basket of the nation. Since the 17th century farming has changed significantly, but agriculture has continued to be a driving force in our state, with new farms being started at a rate nearly four times faster than the national average. Maine also boasts one of the highest organic-to-conventional farm ratios in the United States.

We’re fortunate to have a robust farmer support system, with MOFGA─the nation’s oldest and largest organic farming organization, the Maine Farmland Trust, and a surprising lack of partisan preoccupation when it comes to agriculture in the state-houses. Why shouldn’t we build upon this industry that’s already established and thriving in our state?

7. Land-Rich

Maine is a land-rich state. With the exception of the coastal region and some scattered cities in the southern and central part of the state, we’re still very rural, with large tracts of land yet undeveloped. Land that had once been farmed has since been abandoned and is just waiting for a good steward to breathe life back into it. Entire fields where dairy cows once grazed have been forgotten, and in many cases are merely bush-hogged annually to keep the forest at bay.

Many homeowners own more than half an acre, and some families possess larger tracts that are passed down from one generation to the next. If you were born and stayed here in Maine, there’s a good chance you know someone who has acreage where opportunity for farming exists. This is a huge resource that Mainers can utilize to generate income for themselves─if only they would consider farming as a way forward.

Consider Farming as a Way Forward

Society’s long-standing perception of farming as a poor career choice is pervasive, but slowly beginning to crumble thanks to the modern agricultural movement. There’s a new generation of farmers on the horizon─they come to farming from all walks of life, and a broad spectrum of demographics and interests. Not just young people, but parents seeking a better lifestyle for their families, older folks looking to make a change in their lives or to start something new; they’re an incredibly diverse group. 

These new-age farmers want to make a difference in the world; they’re into the idea of clean food and living more sustainably on the land. People are finally beginning to realize that our natural resources in this world are not going to last forever; these new-generation farmers want to do their part─not only to conserve what we have for future generations─but also because it’s the right thing to do.

Who are we to think ourselves so superior to every other life-form on this planet that we can justify the consumption of Earth’s resources? How can we legitimize the ravaging of the planet that we share with other creatures? And what gives us the right in the here-and-now to disregard those who will come after we are gone? What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? and would our descendants thank us for it if they ever could?

If we search our hearts, I think we all know the answers to those questions. No, you’ll likely never get rich serving the land and community, but farming IS a viable way forward, and I urge you to consider it. I urge our elected officials not to overlook the possibilities that agriculture holds for our rural regions. I ask parents not to disregard the opportunities that farming might offer your children. And I beseech people young and old to consider farming─on any scale─to make a difference in this world.

What do YOU think? Feel free to weigh in; leave a comment below!

Homegrown Winter Salads

homegrown pea shoots

I haven’t posted about it in a while, but I’m still growing shoots and sprouts as part of my Winter Growing Challenge, and I am loving my homegrown winter salads! I’ve modified my methods for growing shoots this year, and─so long as I remember to soak the seed on a regular basis─I’ve been harvesting 1 flat of pea shoots, and 1-2 quarts of sprouts per week. These have been a refreshing addition to our family’s typical winter-fare, and especially great on those days when I’m in the office at Johnny’s all day.

homegrown winter salad
A big bowlful of freshly harvested, homegrown pea-shoots!

These homegrown winter salads are great, because you can keep them simple, or get as elaborate with them as you like; so long as there’s some kind of leafy green forming the foundation of the dish, it’s still classified as salad. I’ve drizzled vinaigrette dressing over a bowlful of pea shoots and called it salad; but typically I like to at least have some shredded carrot and thinly sliced onion in my salads, and some kind of cheese too.

Up until recently, my two boys have always been exceptionally good eaters. William especially has always been fond of vegetables and fruits, and─while he will certainly eat cookies and candies if given the opportunity─he would also just as readily take an apple or even a pepper or raw mushrooms as a snack. Imagine my surprise when I set this big beautiful bowl of homegrown winter salad on the table, only to have William exclaim in dismay, “Salad again!?”

I suppose, at nearly 16 years old, such a reaction from my eldest son is not so unusual…I’ll hope it’s a passing phase and keep growing these greens anyway.

BraeTek and I have enjoyed several homegrown winter salads. He’ll be 12 in a month, and so far the only food he really doesn’t care for is tomatoes.

I’ve even bestowed a few salads upon colleagues in the office─trying to share the love. Love for homegrown winter salads. Love for fresh greens. Love for real food and self-sufficiency. And just love in general; it’s nice to know someone cares, right?

If you recall─last year, due to tight living quarters, I only had a dresser drawer for germination, and a small rack in front of a kitchen window for growing out my shoots. I was using 4×6-inch aluminum loaf pans, and even with 3-5 of those per week, we just didn’t seem to eat as much salad as I had hoped for.

This year, thanks to the spacious, rambling house that came with Runamuk’s #foreverfarm, I’ve been able to significantly step up my efforts to produce fresh leafy greens in the form of shoots and sprouts. I brought the grow-rack that I’d constructed back in 2015 into the house, and set up my grow lights on it. I put my soil in a bin, and in another I put all of my seeds for shoots, sprouting, and microgreens, so they’d be in one central location, and easily accessible for use. To house seeds while they soak, and for storing associated equipment, I’m using this wooden cabinet. It’s a pretty sweet set-up.

winter growing grow station
My winter growing station! Love this set-up!

Instead of the 4×6-inch aluminum loaf pans, I purchased Johnny’s Shallow Black Germination Trays, which are perfect for shoots and micros. Ideally I would have invested in the Hard Plastic Perma-Nest Trays as well, because these trays have drainage slots in them and in order to prevent excess water from going onto my carpet I need to have some way to catch it. Finances are tight though, so I’ve opted to hold off on the perma-nest trays, and I’m making do with an over-turned humidity dome for the time being. It’s not elegant, but it works.

Note: I’m all too familiar with tight financial situations, but don’t let that keep you from growing your own winter greens! Check out “Repurposed Containers for Growing Shoots” for possible alternative tray ideas that won’t eat into your budget.

homegrown winter salads
“Seed weighing station”

I’ve found .3lb of pea shoot seed works very nicely on the 1020 trays, so I just weigh out the seed into a bowl, cover the seed with water and place the bowl in my wooden cabinet overnight. The next day I fill a tray with soil (I keep the soil in my bin pre-moistened), spread the seed even across it, water them in, and cover with a damp cloth. The covered flat of seeds is placed on a shelf on the grow rack, but I don’t turn the lights on until germination has occurred and the seeds begin to sprout. At that point the cloth can be removed, and, with the fixtures positioned just above the trays (you don’t want plants to have to stretch for the light), I flip the switch on the lights.

Note: for more detailed instructions check out this article I wrote last year: How to Grow Shoots for a Supply of Leafy Green Vegetables This Winter.

I usually have to water the trays about every other day. Before germination occurs, I water right through the cloth that covers the seeds. After that, bottom watering would be preferred, but my current set up makes that impossible, so I just gently water from above─just enough to moisten the soil.

After about a week my pea shoots are ready to harvest. 1 of these flats fills a 1 gallon storage bag for me, and will keep very well in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

My sprouts are in a cupboard in the kitchen; I like to keep them next to the sink since they require twice daily rinses. These are simply pint-sized mason jars that hang out among my drinking glasses. I have a scrap of linen that I keep near the sink, which I pull out to drain the seeds after a rinse, then the jar goes back into the dark cupboard until the sprouts have their first sets of leaves. Once that happens I’ll take the jar and place it in a sunny window to green the leaves up, and then the sprouts are stored in a Ziploc bag stashed in a drawer of the fridge.

I’ve been crazy busy since I bought the farm, and now that “Busy Season” is upon us in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, I’m spending 4 days a week off the farm. I feel like I’m always running, running, running; there’s so much to be done and I’m just one woman─so I’ve streamlined processes, and set up systems that allow me to perform tasks as efficiently as possible. I like my shoot-and-sprout production systems. I even have a salad-system, because on mornings when I’m getting ready to go to Johnny’s, preparing a salad for lunch is usually asking too much of myself.

On those mornings, by the time I get both boys off to school, feed and water 70 animals, shut down the big old house and make sure I have myself in order, often I’m running late and don’t have time to shred carrots or slice onions. So I’ve taken to keeping shredded carrot and cheese, and a sliced onion in Ziploc baggies in the fridge, which makes it super easy for me to literally throw a salad into a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and head out the door.

These greens seem almost to burst in your mouth when you chew them, so fresh and full of life-giving nutrition. When I’m sitting there in my cubicle at Johnny’s, tethered to their phone, eating my homegrown salad─I feel like I’m spoiling myself a little. Or maybe this is what “taking care of yourself” looks like, lol. Either way, I’m super happy with my homegrown winter salads.

Who else is growing their own fresh, leafy greens this winter? Leave a comment below to share with us what you’re growing! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box; OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm. Thanks for following along!

2018 Year-End Review

2018 top 9

It’s time for Runamuk’s 2018 Year-End Review! A quick review of my adventures in farming over the course of 2018 to give us some perspective before we launch into 2019, and all of the shiny new opportunities that await this farmer now that we finally have a permanent place to call home.
2018 best 9Sometimes we wait 10 years for that 1 that will change your life; 2018 was that year for me. Closing on the Hive House is the biggest accomplishment of my life, and while I still have goals I want to achieve, I’m doubtful that anything I do from here on out will ever compare to buying a farm and seeing that lifelong dream come true. Farm ownership has changed my life─it’s changed and it’s made all the difference for my family. Before we move on to 2019 and all the possibilities that it might have in store for us, I’d like to take a moment to review 2018 at Runamuk, and reflect on the lessons I learned as a beekeeper, as a farmer, and as a person.

The Runamuk Apiary

runamuk apiary_may 2018The winter months of 2018 were harsh for many beekeepers across Maine; Runamuk lost 20 out of 21 hives. It’s not the first time I’ve lost a significant portion of my apiary, but it’s always a disappointment and a big set-back to my operation. A visit from the state apiarist, Jennifer Lund, who examined the dead-outs, confirmed my suspicions. I did everything “right”, but the severe cold we experienced for prolonged stretches during January and February, combined with the bizarre the fluctuations in temperatures, had caused the bees to perish.

So I started again. I bought in 10 packages and 5 nucs this spring, and raised almost 40 of my own Queens, which were either installed into nucleus colonies, or replaced Queens in existing hives. I did much better this year with Queen-rearing; I’ve learned that timing is hugely important, as is providing adequate stores and nurse bees to your mating nucs. Right now I’m managing over 30 colonies, but the real question is: how many will survive the winter?

A drought during the main nectar flow this year, meant the bees were unable to make much in the way of surplus honey. The little honey that Runamuk produced was redistributed among the nucleus colonies I raised for 2019─I’m determined to NOT buy in bees this year. Customers were disappointed that I did not have honey for sale, and there was a significant impact to my finances as well.

Those severe weather conditions of the 2018 winter qualified me for the FSA’s ELAP program (Emergency Livestock Assistance Program). It was more paperwork and more waiting on the FSA, but in October I received $1200 from the government to reimburse Runamuk in-part for bees purchased to replace hives lost to the severe winter conditions. It didn’t completely cover the cost of the replacement bees, but it was definitely a help.

Farm & Garden

apiary apprenticeships
The laying flock working the garden.

Our late-season closing date had significant impact on the Runamuk farm and garden operations. Thankfully, I was able to plant potatoes and onions in a transition plot in Norridgewock, because aside from that I was not able to grow vegetables during 2018. By the time we arrived on the scene at the Hive House it was the beginning of July and preparations for moving the chicken flock took priority.

To house the flock of laying hens at our new #foreverfarm, I constructed twin chicken tractors. I rolled them onto the neglected garden plot, and set the birds to work on the weeds and the soil. Investment in electric-net fencing and solar chargers allowed me to rotate the flock around the future garden site, and opened the door for more rotational-grazing in seasons to come.

happy sheep at runamukLater in the fall Runamuk was gifted a pair of Romney sheep, which will work well in tandem with the chickens in my rotational-grazing schemes. These lovely ladies are so sweet and gentle; they’ve added a special dynamic to the Runamuk farm. Next fall I’ll have them bred with the intention of putting some meat in the freezer come 2020.

Following Halloween, I made one last push to get a crop of garlic in the ground at our new location. This involved chopping a swath down through my cover-crop, plugging in the 10-pounds of seed garlic I’d purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and then laying a good 6-inches of straw on top of the cloves. I’m looking forward to seeing those first bright green leaves poking up through the straw this spring.

Personally

2018 was a year of personal growth for me. Half the year I was strung out, tense and distraught as I plodded through the FSA’s extensive loan process, anxiously awaiting Closing Day while my life and my farming operation sat on hold. I distracted myself with friends, music, and by focusing on the things that I could do while I waited, which turned out to be serving the farmers’ market and working with the bees (yay bees!)

appalachian sheep dogsIn May I joined friends on-stage at the Farmer Talent Show to play my banjo in public for the first time ever (I’m a little shy, if you recall, and suffering from a bit of stage fright, so this was a big deal for me). The show was a fundraiser for the Maine Harvest Bucks program at the Madison Farmers’ Market, and turned out to be a wild success within our rural community.

It was late in the season by the time I finally met the Sellers at the FSA office in Skowhegan for Closing on the Hive House. On June 27, 2018, my whole life changed. I’d earned something for myself that was monumental, validating years of blind faith in a dream that more than one person has scoffed at along the way. As a result, I’ve become a little bolder, more confident in myself and my own abilities. I’ve found my “muchness” in the Hive House and in this scrappy parcel of land.

me on the farm
Loving life on my new farm in New Portland, Maine!

At the same time, learning to be alone for the first time in my life was challenging. I struggled with it initially, but then leaned into the discomfort. I allowed myself to grow and evolve, and I’m learning to appreciate the solitude. Being alone is a marvelous opportunity to get to know oneself better. A chance to shower oneself with love and attention. And so I have.

What’s more, I’ve decided to step down as manager of the Madison Farmers’ Market so that I can better devote myself to Runamuk, my kids, and to myself. The Hive House, Runamuk, and all that I want to do here─all that I want to be for my kids─is a lot to manage on my own. I can do it, but I’ve realized that I need to better prioritize how I use my time and energy, and I need to prioritize who and what I give myself to. My kids have to come first, Runamuk is next, then me; everyone else and everything else will just have to get in line.

Biggest Lessons Learned 2018

  1. NOT getting what you want, can sometimes be a blessing.
  2. Prioritize everything.
  3. Solitude = Self-Love and alignment with ones’ own soul.

2018 held some painful plot-twists: initially things had looked good for my purchase of the Swinging Bridge Farm, but when that door abruptly closed on me, I had to think fast if I were going to make farm-ownership a reality for Runamuk. What if the stars moved out of alignment and I missed my once-in-a-lifetime chance?

Now that we are settled at the Hive House, I am grateful to the Universe for saving me from myself lol; as much as I loved SBF and those beautiful, beautiful trees, that house and property needed a lot of work and money put into it, and it would likely have been too much for me to cope with on top of farming. The Hive House is in solid shape and is everything Runamuk needs, it’s everything my kids need, and I am grateful to be steward of this patch of Earth.

Level-Up

runamuk acresBuying the farm was life-changing for me; I leveled-up big time this year, and now I have the chance to grow Runamuk into the sort of conservation farm I’d always imagined. Now I can try the things I’ve always longed to: rotational-grazing, cultivating soil microbial life for better soil health, planting perennials for food, medicine, and nectar sources, and practicing a style of farming that combines modern agriculture and environmental conservation in the best way possible.

I’m eager for spring to come and for the chance to dig in here at our new #foreverfarm home. Like so many other farmers and gardeners, I’m pouring over the seed-catalogs and planning my 2019 season. I’m giddy as a schoolgirl at the thought of all the projects I have lined up. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’ll be building toward something that will be here for generations to come.

This bee-friendly demonstration farm may never change the world on the whole. Yet, if I can show even a small segment of the population that bees and bugs are good─that insects are crucial to the web of life and remind people that so much of what we know today is dependent on these tiny creatures and their relationship with flowering plants, and as such they are deserving our respect, our appreciation, and our protection─then I will have made some difference in the world. My life’s mission will be fulfilled and I will be content enough in that.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box; 2019 is going to be a great season! Follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes glimpses into day-to-day life on this #beefriendlyfarm.