A Single Mom Farming Alone

It was never my intention to be a single mom farming alone─in fact, I rarely think about my situation that way. Beginning farmer? sure. Female farmer? absolutely. Single white woman farming with 2 kids in tow? Not so much. It was recently pointed out to me on facebook, though, when another page shared Runamuk’s post with this remark: “Think being a single mom prevents one from starting a farm? Think again. This mom shows how it’s done in Maine!” I was startled by their assessment and it’s been nagging at me ever since, so naturally I have to tell a story about it.

Kids Bring Farming to Another Level

My 2 sons, BraeTek on the left, and William in the foreground.

Farming is hard under even the best of circumstances, but having kids on the farm brings it to another level. Kids have to have routines, they need to be cared for and fed, educated and molded into responsible citizens with good values and moral principles. I’m happy for the moms out there who have family and friends to help them along their child-rearing journey. I believe that a child should have a village in his or her life; a diverse array of people to learn from and draw a wide-range of experiences from. Unfortunately, I have never had that kind of support in my own child-rearing journey.

When my boys were very young, I was especially isolated and I struggled with it in a big way. I’ve had to learn to juggle my passion for farming with my motherly responsibilities. In fact, trying to farm and be a mom at the same time has been as big a challenge as securing property for Runamuk’s forever-farm was. Bigger, actually─because if I had never developed strategies to make it work for both my children and I, then I wouldn’t have been able to grow Runamuk to the point that I could convince the FSA to help me invest in this property.

I’m that mom…

First, let me explain to you who my children are…

fun in the mud
We’ve always had lots of fun playing in nature!

You know those sweet little ones who are polite, clean, good-natured and well-behaved, toddling along behind their mother as they go through the grocery store? Yeah─those aren’t my kids. My kids are the ones who burst into the store already arguing with each other; they’re the ones who race up and down the aisles, bump little old ladies, or stop to scream at the cheese (yes. This really happens…regularly...). I’m that mom, too frazzled to bother taming her hair, who never really seems to have control of her kids.

I don’t really want to control my kids though. That’s not who I am, and that’s not how I parent. I believe that children are individuals just like you or I; they have their own needs, feelings and desires that should be respected. And, they have their own challenges in life too, just like you or I.

The Role Autism Has Played at Runamuk

My eldest son, William, is Autistic. He was diagnosed on the spectrum by the time he was 3: “High-Functioning Autistic”. He’s smart as a whip─reading by the time he was 3─and can remember facts and events like it’s nobody’s business.

William is also a visual thinker, and a bit of a ham. He often reenacts skits from various cartoons, comic strips, books, or movies that he’s seen or read. Check out the first few seconds of these 2 clips to see where screaming at the cheese in the dairy aisle comes from…

William is able to communicate fairly well, but struggles to understand social cues. He gets overwhelmed in social settings, and has such keen hearing that he’s very sensitive to loud or noisy situations. He has some extremely rigid thinking that impedes his daily life. And mine…

It’s hard to say if it’s the Scottish lineage of my ex-husband’s side, or if it’s just William’s nature to be quick to anger, but that’s traditionally been how he copes with his disability. He gets so angry when someone says or does something that doesn’t match up with what he expects or wants it to be, that sometimes he lashes out at the people around him─either verbally or physically.

He also struggles with impulse control, so teaching him that it’s not right to hit, use hurtful language, or reenact inappropriate skits, has been exceedingly challenging.

As a young mother I had an extremely difficult time dealing with society’s judgemental nature. Among the professionals who were supposed to be helping me walk my disabled son through various treatments and therapy programs, I felt judged incompetent because I could not control my son. By the teachers leading the preschool program, I felt inadequate because my son could not sit in circle time without hitting the child next to him. And I especially felt judged by other moms we tried to connect with; rarely were we invited back for a second visit.

It’s hard to say if it was William’s behavior, or my own reclusive nature that got in the way back then. I was insecure, highly sensitive, and overwhelmed. I tried, but I could not control my young son. I could not make him do what they wanted; William only does what he wants.

After BraeTek came along it became extremely difficult to take William on outings by myself─even a trip to the grocery store was an ordeal. I remember one time I had BraeTek in his infant-carrier, strapped atop the grocery cart and I left him there while I chased William 2 aisles away! Mercifully my baby was still there when I returned, heart in my throat, 4yo William tucked under my arm kicking and screaming.

Ups & Downs

with william at borestone
My attempt to get a picture with William

As he’s grown older, and especially since my divorce, William and I have had some serious ups and downs in our relationship. He resented me for the divorce. My living situation in the years leading up to the purchase of Runamuk’s farm was rough on the kids. It’s gotten much better since we’ve finally found home, but even now it seems to come and go in waves. Some days William is a happy prankster, re-telling Garfield comic strips. Other days he can be so aggressive, and so difficult for me to remain calm in the face of his raging fury, that I am reduced to sobbing in the bathroom at the end of the day.

That’s why he only stays with me 2 nights each week.

Mother of the Year I am not.

My ex-husband is an excellent father though, and it is a consolation for me to know that William has grown in all areas with his father as his primary care-giver. Meanwhile, BraeTek is at Runamuk 4 nights a week, and seems to be doing well with me as his primary care-giver. Following our divorce, my ex and I have learned to co-parent with the best interests of our children at heart, and I’m grateful for the amiable relationship we now share.

Still, I can’t help but harbor some guilt for the mistakes I’ve made in raising my boys. I can’t help feeling some level of guilt for the fact that I couldn’t give up my farm-dream to put their needs first. And I can’t help feeling guilty that I get overwhelmed by my own son.

Strategies & Attitudes

fresh carrots
William has always loved eating straight out of the garden!

The boys are 16 and 12 now; looking back on it I can see how I adapted different strategies and attitudes with my children that allowed me to cater to their needs and the needs of Runamuk at the same time.

Eventually I learned to ignore other people’s judgemental attitudes. William looks like a normal 16 year old boy; they don’t realize that he has some serious issues to contend with, and so I forgive them their harsh judgements.

When we are in a store or social situation, I’ve learned to focus solely on William so that I can thwart those impulses of his. And for special events, my ex and I have learned to team up to coax William through.

I’ve learned to plan my week around William’s visit. I don’t work off the farm on those days so that I can supervise William, and I stay within earshot of the house when he is at Runamuk. On days when William’s mood is more volatile, I’ve learned to be flexible enough to drop whatever I’m doing in order to work him through it.

Keeping a good routine with the kids has been imperative, I’ve found, and so I stop farm-work by 4 to cook dinner and spend time as a family.

And I’ve learned to use screen-time to my advantage. They’ll work through a number of chores for the promise of 2 or 3 hours on the internet. And when they get out of line, the screens are the first thing to go.

World’s Okayest Mom

Motherhood is probably the biggest challenge of my life, and as such it is also the biggest source of insecurity in my life. That’s why I was so taken aback by that facebook post: “This mom shows how it’s done!”

Obviously they don’t know me, lol.

If any of the cashiers from the Madison Hannaford supermarket are reading this, I’m sure they’re chortling with laughter right now. They’ve seen my kids (and me) at our worst─unwitting bystanders to this show I call “My Life”.

I’m really not the mom to show anyone how it’s done. Laughingly, I refer to myself as the “World’s Okayest Mom”─not the worst by far, but certainly not the World’s Greatest Mom.

strawberries on greenstalk
BraeTek, age 12.

I never gave up though. I’ve given my kids everything I could─emotionally, physically and financially─even while trying to build this crazy farm-dream of mine. I may not always get motherhood right, but I’m always giving it the best I have.

Older now, and more confident in myself, I’ve found a new level of freedom in not caring what anyone thinks of me─or my son. This freedom has allowed me to create a life all my own. It allows me to be wholely and completely myself─quirky, weird and passionate, life-loving me─and there is no one I am more myself with than my children.

You know the mom in the grocery store who is talking and laughing─maybe just a little too boisterously─with her children as they shop? The mom who uses different voices when reading a storybook aloud, who actually gets in the sled with the kids, makes a mud pie, a blanket-fort, or takes up a swash-buckling stick-fight with her son? You know those moms who make ordinary days magic, and holidays extraordinary?

I’m that mom.

Go forth and farm, ladies!

My favorite picture as “Mom”.

I’m damned proud of how far I’ve come with my children, and the mother that I am. It hasn’t been an easy road, but if it hadn’t been for the experiences I had as a young mother, I surely would not be the person I am today. And yes, I’m proud that I’ve managed to build up this farm even while coping with the struggles of motherhood.

I hope that my story does inspire other women to follow their hearts and lead their own farming-journeys─even with their kids in tow. I hope they look at me and say, “My kids are way better behaved than Sam’s; if she can do it, so can I!” Go forth and farm ladies; the world needs us!

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; OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the day-to-day goins-ons of this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Runamuk’s 1st-Ever Open Farm Day!

open farm day

This past Sunday Runamuk participated in it’s 1st-ever Maine Open Farm Day. This was Maine’s 30th annual Open Farm Day, which gives the public the opportunity to meet their local farmers and support agricultural businesses across the state. Runamuk invited it’s local community to stop by the farm, offering tours, the chance to pet the sheep and meet the chickens, or to have pictures taken atop Walter, our antique tractor. It was a very rewarding day on the farm.

open farm day_2019

Quality vs Quantity

Honestly, I didn’t promote Runamuk’s participation in Open Farm Day very loudly; in fact, I just sort of whispered it. This season has been so hectic as Runamuk seeks to establish itself here, and I’ve been coping with some seasonal farm-overwhelm as I try to keep up with it all (more about that in an upcoming post!), so I just wasn’t able to give much energy to the event. Even still, I was happy with the handful of people who stopped by that morning: quality vs quantity.

open farm day_billiejo and easton
My neighbor, Billie Jo, and her grandson, Easton, at Runamuk on Open Farm Day.
open farm day_2019
The neighbors brought their grandson, Easton, to pet the lambs!
open farm day_2019_local family
The lambs loved a visit from Benjamin and his family!

Every Day is Open Farm Day at Runamuk

Later that evening I saw a few remarks on facebook from local folks who said they would have gone if they’d known, so I’d like to take this opportunity to say that every day is Open Farm Day at Runamuk. The public is always welcome to stop by for a tour, take a walk through the pollinator meadow, or find out what we have available for veggies and farm-products. We’re open every Saturday from 8 to 4, but I would happily coordinate tours any other day of the week, and of course, we accept drop-ins too.

Runamuk is a community farm─as in, we exist to serve our community. Yet, Runamuk is more than just another small farm; Runamuk Acres is an education center for nature and agriculture. We want to inspire people to value and protect the natural world. We also seek to inspire other farmers to use the forces of nature to their advantage and farm for climate action.

And so we invite the public in. Come see us!

The People’s Farm

I feel very strongly about sharing the farm with the people in this way. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the support of our community, both locally and online. What’s more, to buy Runamuk’s forever-farm I took advantage of government programs funded by tax-payer monies. This farm belongs to the people; I’m just fortunate enough to be it’s Steward.

If you’ve been following my story for a long time (thank you!), you likely already know what I have in mind. But for those who might be new here: imagine a series of trails winding through Runamuk’s 53 acres of fields and forest, beckoning the people to take a stroll. There will be several picnic tables for families or class field trips to use to eat their lunch outdoors. I’ll host workshops and fun events on-farm to promote education on a wide range of topics.

Luckily there is an existing trail on the property, so I can build on that, and even without picnic tables, Runamuk is a lovely setting for a picnic lunch. I’m stoked, that a couple of local schools have already inquired about field trips.

open farm day
Benjamin has fun with Walter, Runamuk’s ’51 Farmall tractor.

Next Year

There’s always next year, to get out and participate in Maine’s annual Open Farm Day. Runamuk will definitely sign up again next year, and the years following that, since I plan to be here doing this work on this scrappy piece of Earth for the rest of my life. With any luck, by this time next year things will be running more smoothly here, and I’ll be able to give the event more time and energy.

Thanks for following along! Be sure to subscribe by email to keep up with the latest from Runamuk Acres; OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the day to day workings of this bee-friendly Maine farm!

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution; Review & Giveaway

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution is an eye-opener for the gardener, farmer, or homesteader, who seeks to cultivate soil health wherever they grow. Andrew Mefferd was most obliging to send me a copy of his latest book for review and giveaway. It is my privilege to be able to offer you the chance to win a copy for yourself.

What is No-Till?

No-till is exactly what it sounds like: reducing or avoiding tillage in the garden or crop field. No-till is is about climate change, soil health, and farm profitability─it’s a way to improve all three at the same time. In the introduction of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”, Mefferd states:

Ultimately, no till is about the soil, and how improving soil health can also improve atmospheric health and farm bottom lines. Any one of these issues by itself is compelling enough to make us want to try no-till. The fact that no-till makes the connection between all three issues is what makes it so timely.

For example, if you only cared about farm profitability, and didn’t care about the soil or atmospheric health, no-till would still be worthwhile for improving farm efficiency and profitability. Growers who are happy with what they are earning, but want to grow in a more ecological method, will also be interested in no-till.

Avoiding tillage preserves soil structure and protects the soil by leaving crop residues on the soil surface. The improved structure and soil cover increase soil’s ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn reduces soil erosion and run-off, and prevents pollution from entering nearby water sources. This creates an ideal environment for microbial life.

In “Cultivating Soil Health“, the first article in this series on soil, we discussed how plants use sunlight to convert carbon and water into carbohydrates. They use the carbohydrates to grow their roots, stems, leaves and seeds, and then exchange surplus carbohydrates for minerals and nutrients mined from the soil by the microbial life-forms. Carbon is the fuel source driving these interactions. By bolstering soil-life we’re effectively promoting the health of the crops we plant there, which means we can grow bigger (and more nutritious) vegetables and fruits, and we’ll have healthier, more disease-resistant crops.

No-till even lowers the barriers to beginning farmers, making it possible to start a farm without a tractor or even a rototiller. Runamuk is living proof of that. I don’t own a tiller and after buying Runamuk’s forever-farm I could not afford to pay someone to till a plot for our garden here. Yet through a combination of rotational grazing, occultation, and cover-cropping, I’ve managed to establish a fairly sexy 60ft x 100ft plot. If I can do it, anyone can.

Who is Andrew Mefferd?

Click image to purchase with Amazon.

Andrew Mefferd is a Maine farmer who spent 7 years in the research department at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. As part of his job there, he traveled around the world to consult with researchers and farmers about the best practices for greenhouse growing. From Johnny’s, Meffered moved on to become the editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine. His first book was: “The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook“. Now he’s published a second book, entitled: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution; High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers”.

About the Book

Mefferd has written this book in a laid-back conversational tone, much like the way I write my blog-posts and articles. You feel as though you’re having a conversation with a friend or colleague, or sitting in on a presentation at an ag-conference. In the first part of the book, Mefferd has explained what no-till is, and all of the benefits and disadvantages associated with this method of growing. The second part of the book consists of the case-studies of 17 different farms who are using varying no-till techniques. It’s organized into chapters according to methodology: mulch grown in place, cardboard mulch, deep straw mulch, and compost mulch. Mefferd also highlights the use of plastic for occultation and solarization.

My Opinion

I really appreciate the way Andrew Mefferd has done the leg-work of visiting these farms to interview the farmers about their methods. In my own farming-journey, I’ve often found that learning from other farmers is a very powerful resource. Talking and discussing ideas with other farmers helps me improve my techniques or learn new skills. Sometimes, bouncing ideas off a peer helps me to muster the courage to try something new, or to take on a more intimidating project. While this book is not a step-by-step how-to manual, I do feel it’s worthy of a place on your shelf. What’s more, I feel this book should be shared with as many people as possible in order to spread the word about no-till farming and regenerative agriculture.

The Climate Solution

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to not only mitigate, but actually reverse global warming. At the same time, it provides solutions to other burning issues, such as poverty, public health, environmental degradation, and global conflict.

Read that last paragraph one more time, if you would─and think about what that means….

Regenerative agriculture is THE answer to all of the really big and burning problems humanity currently faces.

regenerative agriculture_definitionScientists have come to recognize that healthy soil plays an essential role in drawing down and sequestering carbon. According to the Rodale Institute, adopting these widely available and inexpensive organic management practices (deemed “regenerative agriculture“) would allow us to sequester all of our annual global greenhouse gas emissions (roughly 52 gigatonnes of CO2). These practices work to maximize carbon fixation, while minimizing the loss of carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.

Rodale states that changing farming practices to organic, regenerative and agroecological systems can increase soil organic carbon stocks, decrease greenhouse gas emission, maintain, yields, improve water retention and plant uptake, improve farm profitability, and revitalize traditional farming communities, while ensuring biodiversity and resilience of ecosystem services. Rodale even goes so far as to say that regenerative organic agriculture is integral to the climate solution.

If you think this seems unlikely and impossible, Rodale has 3 decades worth of scientific data verifying these practices.

The Giveaway

Enter to win this copy of The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution! For 2 weeks, beginning Monday, July 22nd and ending at midnight on August 5th, I’m offering Runamuk followers the opportunity to win this book.

Regardless of where in the world you live, I am willing to send Mefferd’s book to you for FREE, because I want to share it with other growers. I want to inspire you, and the growers around you, to join the regenerative movement. No-till is an important tool in our arsenal of resources, and regenerative agriculture is how we ensure our children’s future on Earth.

Legally, participants must be at least 18, so if you’re younger, please recruit help from a parent or guardian to enroll. The winner will be drawn at random by Rafflecopter, who is hosting this giveaway for Runamuk, and announced on Wednesday, August 7th. No purchase necessary to play.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Possibilities

Andrew Mefferd’s “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” introduces growers to the possibilities that no-till offers. It opens the door for new farmers, and advocates the sequestering of excess carbon to the soil beneath our feet as the solution to the climate crisis. Through regenerative agriculture we can avert global warming, improve our own existence, and preserve diversity on our planet for all creatures, great and small.

regenerative agriculture shifts the paradigmFarming can save us, folks. But not the kind of industrial farming we’ve been practicing these last 100 years. If we hope to leave our children any kind of legacy, we need farmers who are practicing these methods of regenerative agriculture. With only 2% of the population currently serving as “farmer”, we need lots and lots more people to step up and take on that crucial role. Read “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” and join the movement today.

 

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the organic no-till farming revolution_review and giveaway

The Kingfield Farmers’ Market

bigelow mountain range

Friday evening was the first market of the season for the Kingfield Farmers’ Market, held at Rolling Fatties in Kingfield, Maine. Runamuk was there with our organic (but not certified) eggs, beeswax soaps and salves, and some fresh vegetables.

Earlier this year I’d made up my mind to give up markets and shift instead toward wholesaling Runamuk’s products because of the time constraints I’m facing as a single woman/farmer. When Polly MacMichael, co-owner of Rolling Fatties with her husband, Rob, invited me to join the Kingfield Farmers’ Market, I initially rejected the idea. However, someone in the online community reminded me that this would be a good way to meet this new community I am serving. Runamuk is well-known in the Madison area, but 15 and 25 miles north-west, in the Bigelow Mountain Region we are newcomers. I could not ignore this logic, and sweetening the deal is the fact that Rolling Fatties offers Maine-sourced craft beers on tap, which I am always a sucker for.

rolling fatties restaurant and bar
Rolling Fatties Restaurant & Bar in Kingfield, Maine. Photo courtesy Rolling Fatties.

Rolling Fatties Restaurant and Bar is located in a classic old farmhouse in downtown Kingfield, right on Route 16. Fatties are FAT burritos, by the way, and all made with Maine foods. It’s a fun, energetic atmosphere. The market is held in the adjacent barn, with live music─and did I mention the Maine craft beers?

I’m glad I went, because it felt really good to connect with the community and to meet some of the other farmers eeking out a living in this area. There were a number of people who told me they’d seen Runamuk’s signs or that they’d been watching my progress at Runamuk every time they drive by. One woman was thrilled to find that I had pea shoots available.

The other vendors that make up the Kingfield Farmers’ Market were all friendly and welcoming to me, as a newcomer. There were 6 of us in total. I’m afraid I didn’t catch everyone’s name or farm-name, but Crooked Face Creamery was there, Cold Spring Ranch  with beef and pork, Alice’s Homegrown, a woman selling beautiful loaves of sourdough bread, and John of West Branch Bakery with some bagels that were out of this world.

Meeting Alice of Alice’s Homegrown was particularly inspiring. She’s a spritely 18 year-old farming in Carrabassett Valley on her parent’s land, alongside her boyfriend (who’s name I apologetically have forgotten). She told me, “I’m only 18 and I’ve already figured out what I want to do with my life!” She’d brought vegetables and some glorious tomato plants to the market, along with these amazing dessert cups she’d made using these 4 ounce, wide mouth mason jars. This clever girl packed graham cracker crust into the bottom, then layered rhubarb compote, vanilla pudding, and homemade whipped cream on top of it and sealed it with a lid. She gave me one as a gift at the end of the evening and I savored every bite of that scrumptious dessert.

Runamuk received requests for wholesale eggs from Rolling Fatties and the Hostel in Carrabassett Valley. Ralph Tranten, who owns Tranten’s Grocery in Farmington (and who’s brother owns Tranten’s Grocery in Kingfield) sampled my D’avignon radishes, making it a point to tell me that they’re always looking for local produce. These are invaluable connections for Runamuk’s future and really, really encouraging to me as a farmer.

I was between the ages of 11 and 16 when my family lived in Salem, Maine─another 11 miles west of Kingfield. I attended the Kingfield Elementary School, and then Mt. Abram Regional High School until my junior year. It was during that period of my life that I fell in love with the Bigelow Mountain Range. I knew even then that I never wanted to live anywhere else.

bigelow mountain range
View of the Bigelow Mountain Range from the hill overlooking the village of Kingfield, Maine.

Coming into Kingfield from New Portland is a high hill overlooking the village. Sometime in the last 10 or 15 years the landowner there has cleared the trees, opening up a breathtaking view of Mount Abram with the Bigelows spread out on the horizon behind it. On Friday, as I came with my trusty Subaru Forester loaded once more with table, display pieces, coolers of eggs and produce, boxes of carefully crafted beeswax soaps and herbal salves, it felt such like a home-coming for me that my heart swelled and tears pricked my eyes. To be home in the mountains once more, serving my community by producing high-quality food, working to protect wildlife here where the beauty of nature abounds─is everything I’ve ever wanted and I am so very grateful for every day.

Thanks for following along with the story of this #femalefarmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest posts directly to your inbox; OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm.

Livestock on Pasture and New Lambs at Runamuk!

new lambs at runamuk acres

I love that my forever-farm came with so much open acreage that I can run livestock on pasture. Approximately 12 acres of pasture out behind the farmhouse, and maybe 3-4 acres surrounding the house itself. The pasture, in tandem with investment in electric net-fencing and solar chargers, has opened the door to new opportunities for Runamuk. I’m using chickens and sheep to improve the condition of the soil here, and creating superior food-products by allowing my animals choice grazing all season. It’s everything that farming should be, and I am loving every minute.

Chicken Tractors

For a good 12 or 15 years now, I’ve been keeping chickens. I like them; chickens are fun and interesting creatures. They’re curious, and sociable, and they can be surprisingly clever at times. Having eggs when honey is scarce has been a key strategy in keeping my farm afloat; eggs are a household staple and are always in demand. Produced on a diet of organic and fermented grains, and rotated on pasture, mine are high-quality eggs, and I’m damned proud of them.

livestock on pasture with chicken tractor
“Flock A” is comprised of last year’s birds; they’re doing good work on the site of my future high-tunnel!

The chicken tractors I designed and constructed last year have held up well. The A-frame roosts inside a hoop-house style coop allows roosting space for about 50 birds, with nesting boxes on the sides, and wheels on the back. Using my utility dolly I can roll the structure across the field fairly easily. Before going out on pasture this season, the chicken tractors are each getting some minor modifications.

The lightweight standard blue tarps I’d used last year hadn’t held up very well, and the chicken wire covering my hoop-coops pierced the material in so many places that by the end of last season the tarps were, essentially, perforated. This season I’ve invested in a pair of heavy duty tarps in white, with the thought that the white will reflect heat from the sun better and keep the ladies a little cooler when they’re out there on pasture all summer.

nesting boxes on chicken tractor
The modified nesting boxes on my chicken tractors.

I also made some modifications to the nesting boxes. I removed the pink material (whatever it is!) I’d initially repurposed for the side-walls of my nesting boxes, and replaced it with plywood. Onto the roofs of the nesting boxes, I’d originally planned to install hinges, yet due to the design of my hoop-coops, trying to affix the tarp so that the wind could not take it was “awkward”. Screwing a long strip of plywood to anchor the tarp to the roof of the nesting box, and then using anvil clamps to keep the roof of the nesting box in place, solved both the wind-issue and the hinge-problem at the same time. I have a tarp that isn’t going anywhere unless I want it to, and nesting boxes that keeps eggs in place, allowing for collection of eggs with relative ease.

Sheep Tractor

In order to get the sheep out of the hoop-shed where they’d spent the winter, I had to first construct a shelter they could use out on the pasture this summer. I wanted it to be moveable─like the chicken tractors─but also rugged enough to stand up to the sheep, who sometimes like to rub against and lay against the walls of their shed.

In the barn I found a few landscape timbers that had been left behind by the former owners of my farm, and opted to use 2 of them for skids. I started much the same way as I had with the chicken tractors: by making a bottom frame 5 feet wide by 8 feet long, with the rear wall inset 9 inches to allow for wheels. Then I used 2x3s for the framing and created a salt-box style structure.

salt-box structure sheep tractor for livestock on pastureUsing 2x3s and 1x3s rather than 2x4s, helps keep the weight of the structure down, allowing me to move them around the property by hand.

“Mill-felt” is a material that’s fairly common in this area, having once served as the conveyor belt in one or another of our local paper mills. I happened to have been blessed with several large swaths of this stuff, left behind by the former owners. I’ve used it for smothering new garden plots, keeping drafts out of the chicken coop, and now the sheep tractor. It’s a bit of a PIA to cut, and heavy as all hell to work with (especially when wet!), but I really like it for certain purposes. And so, I cut it to fit the shape of the structure, and tacked it onto the sides as my walls.

mill-felt on sheep tractor for livestock on pasture
Mill-felt as walls.

The roof is made of sheathing plywood that I’ve painted fairly generously. I even embellished the structure with my farm name.

sheep tractor_2019
I was lacking 1 sheet of sheathing plywood for the roof, and with Home Depot an hour away opted to cover the roof with a tarp til I can make the trek to buy materials.

I’m pretty pleased with how the sheep shed turned out. It’s heavy enough that the wind can’t take it, rugged enough to stand up to the sheep, and still light enough that I can move the thing with the dolly. Most importantly, so long as I keep the back wall to the west, the structure protects the sheep from the driving winds that come down off Mount Abram, and gives them a place to get out of the sun, as well as any inclement weather.

sheep livestock on pasture for rotational grazing
Lily and Ghirardelli are excited to feast on fresh green grasses!

Lambs!

Finally the time had come to pick up the lamb that I’d reserved back in March! I made the trek on Friday, an hour and a half southwards to Chelsea, Maine, where Olde Haven Farm is located. Pam and Kelby Young have been growing their farm for the last 5 years, and being there and seeing their operation, I couldn’t help but hope I’ll have as much accomplished at Runamuk in 5 years as these folks have done at their farm. 2 large barns (they said 1 was there when they bought the property), 1 greenhouse, 3 high-tunnels, a commercial kitchen attached to a farm-store, 2 other livestock sheds, and they’d cleared about 30 acres to establish the rolling pasture now in existence there.

tunnels at olde haven farm
2 of the 3 high-tunnels at Olde Haven Farm

If you’re looking for commercial-level production, Finnsheep are not for you. These are a smaller breed, with a hanging weight in the range of 45 pounds. It’s some of the best-tasting lamb-meat you’ll ever have, however, and their fleeces are incredibly luxurious. I especially like that Finns are an old-world heritage breed, which has largely retained their natural instincts for mothering. They tend to produce multiple lambs with every pregnancy, and can produce a variety of colors in their fleeces. Olde Haven Farm is one of the top 10 breeders of Finnsheep in America, and after seeing their stock and talking with Pam and Kelby, I can see why. These farmers really know their stuff. Their animals are all premium livestock, and they won’t let any animal go if they don’t have supreme confidence in.

2nd barn at Olde Haven Farm
The newer barn at Olde Haven currently houses the myriad lambs.

I had a hard time picking out just 2, but Pam and Kelby were patient with me. They took me around to see the Mamas and the Papas to get a better idea what the babies might look like when they grow up. We toured the farm, checking out the high-tunnels, and the back pastures. Much of the infrastructure in existence at Olde Haven is thanks to various NRCS programs that the Youngs have taken advantage of. Kelby strongly advises beginning farmers to develop a relationship with their local NRCS office; he says once you’ve been filing your “Schedule F” with your taxes for 10 years, the opportunities for funding decrease significantly, so he urges you to utilize those programs while you can.

finnsheep lambs livestock on pasture at olde haven farm
Lambs living the life at Olde Haven Farm in Chelsea, Maine!

It was a tough choice, but in the end I managed to make my selection: a rugged little ram lamb, and a dainty little ewe─both brown and white marbled in color. You’d think out of all the choices I’d have selected 2 different colored sheep for the sake of variety, but Kelby said this guy was one of their best ram lambs this year, and I could tell just by looking at him that he is strong and healthy, and will sire some beautiful babies in the future. The ewe I chose is a little on the small side, but something about her struck me, and so I brought her home too!

new lambs livestock on pasture at runamuk acres
New Finnsheep lambs at the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm

Changing the World

I really enjoy having livestock in my life. It’s rewarding to know that I am providing my critters the kind of existence these animals are meant to have: foraging on green grass under a blue sky. The electric net fencing allows me to move them around the field, so they always have fresh grass and forage available to them. These are some happy and contented animals; they greet me with enthusiasm, asking of my attention and love, and I give it to them wholeheartedly. We’re a team─these animals and I. They may not realize it, but the work they’re doing on the pasture is important to Runamuk’s long-term success─and important for the ecosystem we’re a part of. These critters are changing the world just by doing what critters do, and I am the facilitator─steward of animal, plant, and land at Runamuk Acres.

Thanks for following along! If you’re not already on our email list, consider subscribing to receive the latest posts and articles from Runamuk directly to your inbox. OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into life on this bee-friendly farm in Maine!

Cool, Wet Spring

runamuk apiary

A prolonged winter, combined with a cool, wet spring, made for a late start to the 2019 growing season, and even now temperatures remain rather on the cool side. These conditions have made it difficult for the planting of some temperature-sensitive crops. The apiary is particularly tricky to manage in such cool weather, but I am undeterred. Runamuk’s first growing season at it’s new forever-farm is underway! Yes, there have been some unexpected hiccups, but overall I am gaining ground and things are going well.

In the Apiary

The cooler temperatures we’ve experienced this spring have made it difficult to work in the apiary. Ideally, it should be 65 degrees or warmer when inspecting a hive. Cool outdoor temperatures can chill brood in the combs, which can cause larvae mortality. Death of the larvae directly translates into in a drop in the colony’s population, which can set a hive back significantly.

runamuk apiary
The apiary at Runamuk with violets all in bloom!

With snow on the ground right through April, I waited and waited for the weather to turn, checking the weather app on my phone daily and monitoring the thermometer on the side of the garage here on the farm. Unfortunately, it’s been cool all season. It was May, before we saw our first 60-something degree day, and then I leapt at the chance to get into the hives. I had to know what condition the surviving hives were in so that I could determine how this season was going to go.

frost advisory_Maine_cool wet spring
We had a frost advisory at the end of May!

It’s June now, but things haven’t really warmed up too much. I’ve managed to do what I need with the bees, though sometimes I’m forced to push the envelope with the temperature in order to get it done. I’m forever watching the weather forecast, waiting for the right opportunity to get into the hives. Sometimes I’ve had to resort to working on some 60-degree days, when it’s just a tad cool for bees.

Despite the challenges, the first of my overwintered nucs was retrieved this past Saturday by a beekeeping couple from Farmington. Later this week, Kyle DePietro from Tarbox Farm is coming to pick up the nucs he’d reserved back in March. I’m assembling nucs promised to other local beekeepers, and I’ve started a batch of Queens. Woot! Woot!

The dandelions have finally bloomed, the apple trees are blossoming, and there’s tree pollen in the air. The girls are bringing in copious amounts of nectar and turning it into honey; this stimulates the Queens to lay more eggs─up to 2,000 a day!─and the colonies are expanding to fill multiple boxes. I’ve even found a few swarm cells…it’s still a cool, wet spring, but bee-season is here at last!

The Gardens

I am absolutely in love with the gardens I’m creating here. When it comes to gardening─having a permanent location is such a beneficial thing. Knowing that I am going to be here for years to come allows me to invest in the soil, invest in the gardens with my time and energy, and invest in perennial plants that I’ll be here to nurture and care for over the years.

I might have gotten a little carried away at the Fedco Tree Sale this year, but having waited years for the opportunity to add certain perennials to my farm, I have no regrets whatsoever about it. I really want to make a big push for perennial food plants these first couple of years, and so this year I’m putting in 8 apple trees, 25 raspberry plants, 3 highbush blueberry plants, 10 elderberries, and a Shagbark hickory tree going in, as well as some perennial herbs like lovage, parsley and chives. For the pollinators: an allegheny serviceberry, a pagoda dogwood, lots of echinacea, coreopsis, bee-balm, mint, lavender, and whatever else I can make time for this year.

There are 3 perennial flower beds already in existence here, though they all need some TLC. The front perennial bed was overgrown and neglected, so I began first by cutting back overgrowth in the form of dead rose-canes, tree saplings that had taken root, and a shrubby pine at the front end that shaded that whole corner of the garden. Once I managed to clean up the garden, I planted my pagoda dogwood there. I have a number of my perennial flowers and herbs started from seed to plant there, too. Running parallel to my small orchard, and nearer to the roadside, this perennial bed is going to be a beautiful feature in the farm’s roadside landscape.

Regarding the farm’s large vegetable garden─it does not good to plant if the chickens are going to scratch it up, the dog is going to tromp through your beds, or the deer help themselves to your crops. So when my friend, Roberta Libby of Madison, offered Runamuk the gift of several rolls of previously used deer-fencing, I couldn’t say anything except thank you. With  6-foot T-posts, zip-ties, and an extra pair of hands, I was able to get a big fence around the garden, and that is a huge asset when you live in the wilds of Western Maine. I even have a fabulous garden gate!

garden gate at Runamuk
New-to-me deer-fencing and garden gate!

Partly because the bees always come first, and partly because I’m still establishing permanent beds in the new garden, I’m a little behind with planting of some crops. However, with the kind of cool, slow Spring we’ve had, that’s not such a horrible thing. This week I’m making a push to prep the newer half of the garden, which more than doubles the size of the previously existing garden.

As soon as the snow had melted from that area I had laid heavy tarps on the soil to keep the grass from growing up before I could break ground on this new section of the garden. All spring while I’ve prioritized other projects those tarps have been smothering the vegetation beneath, creating a warm bed that is attractive to worms and other soil life. When I finally pulled back the first tarp I could see worm castings covering the soil surface and the grasses and weeds were dead and dried, ready to be incorporated into the soil. The soil itself was fairly soft from so much worm-activity, and I felt guilty just walking upon it.

The soil in the previously existing section of the garden is absolutely beautiful. It is dark and fluffy. You can tell it’s been used and taken care of for decades. Who knows how long that plot has served as a homestead garden for this old farm property? But the soil on the rest of the property is not great. It’s rather acidic and─judging by the type of vegetation growing and the sparseness of it─I suspect it is significantly lacking in nutrients. That can be cured over time with amendments and care, though.

On the up-side, the soil here is just slightly sandy, which makes for good drainage, and contains practically no rocks whatsoever! When I smother a patch, as I’ve done this spring, it’s a dream to take the broadfork to it and create new beds for planting. No tilling necessary! It’s a really beautiful thing.

I am Grateful

farm stand roadsign runamuk acres
Runamuk’s roadside farm stand signage on Rt 16!

I have some livestock-related updates I’d like to share with you as well, but as I have a lot to say about rotational grazing and chicken tractors and such, I’m going to save that for another post. For now, just know that I’m working everyday to accomplish the goals I’ve set for Runamuk. These first few years are largely about establishing the farm at this site, and cultivating a larger customer-base. It’s a huge challenge (I’m perpetually sore these days!), and─if I’m being honest─it’s just a little overwhelming at times.

I’ve got my giant chalkboard, though, and my notebook of to-do lists to keep me on track. Ups, downs, rain or shine, aches and pains─I’ll take it all as part of my farm-journey, and I am grateful for it. With such a beautiful piece of Earth to call my own, how could I not be grateful every minute of every day for the life I’ve been granted here? How could I be anything but grateful that I can spend my days doing work that I love to do─work that has real purpose and meaning to it? This is what I was put here to do, and I will do it wholeheartedly.

Stay tuned for a livestock-related update coming soon! Check back for the next article in our Soil-Series, and don’t forget about our up-coming giveaway of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”. Subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box, OR follow us on Instagram at @RunamukAcres for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

4 Strategies for Improving Soil Health: Garden, Farm, or Homestead

soil is more than just dirt

Growers have 4 key strategies for improving soil health in the garden, on the farm or at their homestead. Old-school growers may balk at the concept, yet studies show that focusing on soil health can increase the efficiency and profitability of a garden or crop-field, and provides an ecological benefit at the same time. What’s more, the health of the soil determines the health of the entire ecosystem, so by improving the soil, growers can provide an ecological benefit to the world around them.

Note: This is Part 2 in a series of articles and posts about Soil here on the Runamuk blog. Follow this link to read Part 1: Cultivating Soil Health.

soil is more than just dirt
Soil is so much more than just “dirt”! Photo via Food Tank─non-profit organization seeking solutions to nourish ourselves and protect the planet.

Try using these 4 strategies to begin improving soil health in your garden, or on your farm or homestead:

1. Reduce tillage:

the organic no-till farming revolution
Andrew Mefferd’s new book, which we will be giving away in the next few weeks!

Improving soil health is largely a matter of maintaining suitable habitat for the myriad creatures that comprise the soil food web. Every time we til the soil, we break up the soil aggregates and the life that exists within the soil is forced to start all over, re-building their homes and their population. Because organic residues decompose more slowly under a reduced tillage system, it lowers the soil temperature so that organic matter can accumulate. Simply by tilling less, we can increase our soil’s organic diversity and activity.

 

More and more, farmers are taking it a step further and turning to a no-til operation. Andrew Mefferd of One Drop Farm, for example, who recently published: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers“.

Note: Check back soon for an upcoming book-review and giveaway!

2. Keep the soil covered:

cover cropping for soil health
Cover-crop of oats, field peas, and dwarf essex rape at Runamuk Acres.

Most people are thinking about erosion when they think about cover crops, but cover cropping does so much more than just “hold the soil”. Cover cropping decreases the breakdown of soil aggregates and increases the organic matter within the soil.

Soil microbes prefer a temperature somewhere around 75 degrees. Any colder and they tend to slow down; a little warmer and they’re on vacation─if the soil temperature gets too hot, you can even kill the microbes who live there. In a bare soil tillage system the soil temperatures can easily get up over 100 degrees!

In turn, this leads to an improvement in the soil structure and stability, increasing the soil’s moisture and nutrient holding capacity. Cover crops offers exactly the kind of habitat soil organisms are looking for.

3. Maximize plant diversity:

New research shows that plant diversity is the key to healthy soils.

A Lancaster University-led team of scientists produced new evidence that increasing plant species diversity can protect soil in grasslands by improving soil structure, thus maintaining the soil’s overall health.

In a series of experiments at field sites in the UK and Germany, scientist tested the soil’s structural stability when planted with a variety of grasses, herbs, and legumes. The researchers found that soil structure improved with higher plant diversity, and the diverse properties of different plant roots were the key factor in keeping soil healthy.

The reason for this is that plants’ roots excel at different things. Legumes are better at getting water into the soil and maintaining root-soil strength, while grasses have fine rooting systems that enhance the stability of soil─making it more resistant to erosion.

What’s more, different plants and their roots offer different habitats for microorganisms in the soil. By increasing the diversity of plant species in the garden or field, you’re inviting a broader spectrum of microorganisms to your soil, which increases your soil’s ability to ward off pests and diseases.

4. Manage Nutrients:

soil healthThe cooler soil temperatures found in a no-till or minimal tillage system promotes organic matter to accumulate, thereby increasing the soil’s microbial life. Yet, the activity of those microbes tends to be a little slower than when organic material is incorporated into the soil through conventional tillage. Surface mulch in conservation tillage systems takes longer to break down, and also impacts the mobility of certain nutrients─Nitrogen in particular.

Nutrients are usually stratified in conservation tillage systems because of the lack of substantial mechanical soil mixing. Stratification refers to the accumulation of soil nutrients in certain areas more than others. Nutrient levels tend to be higher near the soil surface where amendments are applied and where crop residues decay. This stratification can further influence rooting patterns, the availability of nutrients, and the effectiveness of herbicides (should you choose to use them).

It’s important to note, however, that studies have not found significant differences in the nutrient uptake of plants in these stratified no-till systems. Most issues associated with no-till and minimum tillage fertilizer efficiency can be overcome with good fertilizer management and a top-notch soil testing program (including taking more soil samples and getting an analysis annually) to accurately determine fertilizer rates.

Again, I encourage you to reach out to your local cooperative extension for a soil test kit. Spring soil tests provide a better indication of available Nitrogen than fall tests.

Work With Nature

It is important to remember that as gardeners, farmers, and homesteaders, we are actively participating in, and cultivating the natural processes at work around us. This farmer believes that─as growers─we have a responsibility to work with those natural processes, rather than against them. I believe that humanity has an obligation to care for, and look out for the other lifeforms we share this planet with. We have an obligation, too, to ensure the livelihoods of generations that come after us. Environmentally-conscious farming practices are how we do that.

Check back soon for the next article in this soil series! Subscribe by email to have the latest articles and posts from Runamuk delivered directly to your in-box! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse into the day-to-day goings-ons at this Maine conservation farm!

strategies for improving soil health

Cultivating Soil Health: Garden, Farm, or Homestead

cultivating soil health

Cultivating soil health in our agricultural systems is vitally important─not just to our gardens and fields, homesteads and farms─but also to the ecosystems we coexist within. All of the life that exists on this planet is dependent upon our soil’s ability to host biological organisms. We’re incredibly fortunate that the conditions for life happened to align here on Earth, else we would not be here. It’s a marvel. A wonder. Promoting the health of our soils encourages life to flourish─both within the soil, and above it; and when life around us prospers, we will know more bountiful yields, and thus, we will prosper too.

cultivating soil healthAs I prepare to embark upon my first full-season here at Runamuk’s new (and forever) location, I’ve been reading up on soil, trying to gain a better understanding of what a healthy soil looks like, what the components are, and how I can create it. I’ve been gardening for more than 20 years now, yet I admit soil is still something that perplexes me. Maybe because it’s an entire world away, beneath our feet, and so much of what occurs there happens out of sight.

This is the first in a series of articles I’ve put together to help you (and me!) gain a better understanding of soil and how we can be cultivating soil health in our gardens, or on our farms and homesteads. Upcoming articles in this series include (but are not limited to): “4 Strategies for Improving Your Soil”, “Mulch on the Cheap – a Farm-Hack”, a guest-post* (topic TBD), and a review of Andrew Mefferd’s new book: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”. The whole series culminates in a giveaway of Mefferd’s book, so check back soon to get your name in for that!

Understanding Soil

We cannot talk about soil, without first talking about carbon. Carbon is the most essential element in soil fertility, aiding in the development of soil structure, water and nutrient retention, as well as the biological processes that occur within the soil. In sustainable agriculture you hear a lot about increasing the organic matter in the soil, but carbon is the fuel source driving that microbial network.

Modern agriculture is currently experiencing a carbon crisis. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farmland soils has been off-gassed into the atmosphere through the practice of tillage, and farmers are increasingly struggling with soil fertility issues as a result. Still, so many farmers and gardeners still swear by the age-old practice of tilling the soil for cultivation. So much so, that often it’s not even questioned.

Tilling tears apart the organic fungal network within the soil and adds large amounts of oxygen to the soil, which then causes the organic matter to decompose at an unnaturally rapid rate. The farmer or gardener will see an immediate nutrient gain, but it comes at a significant long-term cost, for now the fungal network must be rebuilt before the microorganisms that feed the plants can return to work.

Soil is Habitat

It’s most important for the gardener or farmer to remember that soil is a habitat. This habitat isn’t just physical support to hold plants in place, it’s a whole world of lifeforms that have evolved together with plants over billions of years─and they are all reliant upon one another for their continued existence.

Above the soil, plants use sunlight to convert carbon and water into the carbohydrates that are the building blocks for their roots, stems, leaves and seeds. Below the soil surface, earthworms create tunnels, which the plants use as channels. These channels allow roots and water to penetrate deeper into the soil profile. Mycorrhizal fungi and a spectrum of microbial lifeforms create beneficial relationships with plants by bringing water and nutrients (especially phosphorous) to plants in exchange for energy in the form of carbon. Again, carbon is the fuel source driving the microbial network to digest minerals and make them available to plant roots.

Thus, the goal of good soil management is to maintain the right balance of minerals, organic matter, air and water to allow life to flourish both above and below the soil surface.

Note: This documentary called “Living Soil” is fairly inspiring, and full of useful information that will help you better understand soil and why it’s so crucially important. When you have a little downtime I highly recommend it.

 Cultivating Soil Health

In order to cultivate good, healthy soil, creating those ideal growing conditions for both plants and the soil-life plants depend upon, we need to know which practices to use. To determine  that we’ll need to know our soil’s unique characteristics. What color is the soil? What kind of texture and structure does it have? How deep is your top soil? What is the fertility level or the available nutrients? How well does it drain?

Most of these questions you can answer for yourself just by getting up close and personal with your soil, but a good soil test through your local cooperative extension will provide in-depth information about the available nutrients in your soil, as well as those that are lacking. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to get the kit from the Extension office, take a soil sample (usually you’d collect a few samples from various sites on your property or across the garden plot into a bucket, stir thoroughly, then collect the sample from this bucket to send to the University for analysis). Pay the $15 and find out what you’re dealing with.

Working With Nature

working with nature
At Runamuk, I often use the broadfork in tandem with the laying flock when working the soil.

When you stop to examine the natural processes at work around us here on Earth, it becomes profoundly apparent how interconnected we all really are. Like plants are dependent upon pollinators for their reproduction─so too, are they dependent upon the life-forms within the soil. Every living thing on this Earth has a part to play, and it all starts with soil. As gardeners, farmers and homesteaders we are actively participating in, and cultivating natural processes; it’s important for us to better understand what those processes are so that we can work with them, not against them.

It is this farmers’ belief─that, as a stronger, and more highly evolved species, humanity has a responsibility to look out for the creatures and life-forms around us that don’t have the ability to speak for, or defend themselves. It is my belief that we need to step up and take responsibility for our actions─responsibility for our species─and start farming and living more ecologically.

Yet, even if those things do not matter to you, and you aren’t concerned with soil or environmental health, cultivating soil health is still beneficial for improving the efficiency and profitability of your garden or crop-field. There are farmers and gardeners out there who are using methods that promote life in the soil, and they’re having great success. You could start today; try it for yourself and discover the benefits!

Check back soon for the next article in this series on soil, or to enter to win a copy of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” in our up-coming giveaway! Subscribe by email to have the latest articles and posts from Runamuk delivered directly to your in-box! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine conservation farm!

Recommended Reading

Soil Health on the Farm – an interactive exploration of soil health and how to improve it. From sare.org.

Managing Soil Health: Concepts & Practices – via PennState University Cooperative Extension.

Soil Health Literature – via the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Soil Health Institute’s Resource Library – from the Soil Health Institute.

Soil Health; What is Healthy Soil – via the Rodale Institute.

cultivating soil health

Spring Comes to the Bigelows

fedco tree sale

It’s finally happening; Spring comes to the Bigelows, where I have chosen to make my stand with Runamuk. Rivers and streams are swollen with rain and melt-waters, rushing through gullies and valleys carved into the landscape by a million Springs before this. The ground softens, thawing as the days grow milder, and the world around me is beginning to green up as Life returns to the land.

This is my favorite part…..the Greening.

What joy it brings to my heart to see the greening of the grasses─lawns, fields, and roadsides. What utter elation fills me when the trees’ leaf buds begin to swell, and that first blush of tender yellow-green spreads across the hills and mountains that I call home. We have survived another long, harsh Maine winter, and Spring comes now to the Bigelow Mountains. Life returns in all it’s glory, and I welcome the season with open arms and an open heart.

fedco tree sale
On my way home from the Fedco Tree Sale (Early Pick-Up) 2019 with a car-full of tender young saplings.

Winter stayed late this year, (overstaying his welcome, if you ask me!), yet Spring comes, and the growing season is getting underway. Farmers and gardeners across the land rejoice, and dig their hands into the soil, cultivating an age-old relationship with the Earth and the Life that sustains us.

Whether you grow food or flowers, or if you’re only reading this blog because you’re an admirer of nature or perhaps an aspiring farmer─we are all of us a part of this amazing planet and Her complex ecosystems. It’s important to remember that every living creature on this Earth is connected to the next in some way. We are all of us are dependent upon one another, and the miracle of Life that happened to take hold on this particular ball of rock.

And Life here is beautiful and marvelous, and so so fascinating. We should all devote ourselves to the Earth, just out of gratitude for the existence we have here. I mean, the odds for Life occurring throughout the Universe such as it has here on Earth, are astronomical!

How fortunate are we? To have an existence on a planet that just happens to rotate around a sphere of hot plasma at the ideal location for the most extraordinary forms of Life to take hold, in an otherwise obscure part of the Universe?

How incredible is it that Life evolved into 8.7 million species? Life began, and then adapted─ever changing to meet the conditions of our planet over time─and through those processes of evolution, humanity eventually came into existence.

Against all odds, we are here.

the earth from space
I feel blessed to exist upon this extraordinary piece of rock!

Scientists have not found another planet among the stars that supports Life as Earth does, so there’s no where for us to go if we could even get there; not to mention it’s immoral to trash your rental and stiff the landlord. There is no Planet B. We need to take action to protect the Life that exists here.

Our Life.

That’s why I won’t give up even when my to-do list is longer than I am tall. Life here on Earth is beautiful and precious. We have so much to be thankful for, and I for one would like to give back something to express my gratitude for this Life I’ve been given. In fact, I’ve devoted my life to the Earth in exchange for the opportunity to exist, and for the life I’ve been granted as steward of this particular patch of land.

honeybee and hollyhock
Hollyhock pollination by bumblebee at Runamuk.

My journey as a gardener, to beekeeper, farmer, and now steward, has taught me to recognize the value of the relationships we hold with the life-forms around us. The relationship between pollinators and plants stood out to me above all others. So much of the diversity we have on Earth is the result of the relationship that exists between pollinators and plants. So much of life is dependent upon that relationship. If I can focus my energies on protecting and promoting this one aspect of our existence, then I will have given myself to something hugely important and hopefully my efforts will benefit the planet in a positive way.

Time will tell…

Meanwhile, Spring comes to the Bigelows. The Greening is happening and I’ve immersed myself in farm-projects. I’ve got beds to form in the garden, apple trees and elderberry shrubs to plant, and the chickens and sheep are waiting for the grass to green up out back so they can be moved onto the pasture. The barn is in dire need of organizing so that I can construct mating nucs boxes for the apiary, and I’m gearing up for the spring beekeeping rush, in which swarm management and Queen-rearing take priority at the same time that the garden wants to be planted. Eeeeek!

I wasn’t able to attract any apprentices this year, and I’m actually rather thankful for it. Being on this new property and connecting with the land here is deeply spiritual for me. I’m cultivating an intimate relationship with this scrappy patch of land, getting to know the flora and fauna, becoming acquainted with the soil and how the different seasons affect life here.

Doing the work on my own allows me to immerse myself in the task at hand and enriches the connection. I can hug a tree, or stand and revel in the feeling of the wind sweeping across the back pasture to tangle in my hair. I can stop at dusk to listen to the sounds of Wood frogs in the pond beyond the garden; and I can lose myself in the rhythm of the work, glad for my own strength and the stamina that allows me to do it.

strawberries on greenstalk
BraeTek (12yo) waters his strawberry plants on the GreenStalk garden tower.

Spring comes to the Bigelow Mountains and summer vacation is just around the corner, too. Now that my sons are 16 and 12, including them in chores and recruiting their help for projects is easier than it was when they were younger. Neither of them are inclined to help with the bees, and I won’t force them because I feel like that’s how lifelong phobias are created. They will however, help in the garden, and we’ve been working on cooking and cleaning skills in the house, too. I’m training the boys to take over some of the household responsibilities so that I can direct my energies toward farm-tasks instead, and with summer vacation just around the corner I’ll have their help on the farm more hours of the day.

It’s good for them; work build character, you know.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest updates directly to your in-box! Or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse into life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Happening at Runamuk in 2019

runamuk queen

Some pretty exciting stuff’s happening at Runamuk in the 2019 growing season: new gardens, new growing structures, upcoming events, and even more critters! Farmers across the state are gearing up for the coming season and I’ve dropped to 2 days per week in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected seeds. I’m back on the farm full-time, with a long list of chores and projects to prepare Runamuk for the impending 2019 growing season. There’s a lot going on, so go get yourself a cuppa coffee or tea, and sit down with me for a few minutes to read all about it.

Traditionally, following my end-of-year review (click here to read my 2018 review), I post the farm-plan for the upcoming season, but this year─between my responsibilities on the farm and my 4 days per week at Johnny’s, I have not had the time to do that. Dedicated readers to the Runamuk blog may recall that I’m a big advocate for a good 5-year plan; last year I laid out the details of my plan for Runamuk at it’s new #foreverfarm─right before I found out that the Swinging Bridge Farm was a no-go. Feel free view that 5-year plan here, but keep in mind it’s been modified to suit the property at the Hive House.

Our first year at this new and permanent location was about settling in, establishing the infrastructure and livestock accommodations that we require to operate, and preparing the garden for planting. Even with only half a season last year, we managed to do those things and Runamuk is now set up and ready to dive headlong into the 2019 growing season.

Garden, Orchard & Soil

This year is largely about the garden, and I intentionally did not invest money into expanding the apiary so that I could use those funds for the garden, orchard plants, and in-puts for soil remediation.

cover crop
Garden cover-crop October 2018.

If you recall, I cover-cropped and expanded the existing vegetable garden last fall, so that I now have a space approximately 60′ wide and nearly 100′ long. The Runamuk garden is something of a cross between an intensive market-garden and a homestead production-garden─to feed my family and a few others. As soon as the snow is gone and my soil is workable, I’ll be out prepping beds and starting the first crops: peas, greens, brassicas, onions and potatoes.

Establishing perennials is at the top of my list: apple trees, blueberries, raspberries, and a long list of perennial flowers and herbs are going in the ground here. I sent in my Fedco order back in February, and I’m eagerly awaiting their big tree sale to go pick up my plants (check out this post about the Fedco Tree Sale that I wrote a couple years ago), and perhaps get a few more on sale (when I say “perhaps”, I really mean “definitely” lol). I’ve also started many of my own perennial herb and flower seedlings─things like echinacea, yarrow, lovage, coreopsis, mint, lavender and catnip, to name a few─since it’s much cheaper to buy seed and raise these plants myself than it would be to purchase them as young plants at a nursery.

Improving soil health is a top priority, and I’ve devised a strategy for the 2-acre plot between the farmhouse and the back-field that includes frost-sowing a cover-crop of clover, and then rotating the sheep and chickens across the earth. A soil test is also on my list of things to do, but the biggest garden-project this season comes in the form of an NRCS High-Tunnel.

NRCS High-Tunnel!

That’s right! The NRCS has officially designated funds for a high-tunnel at Runamuk Acres! Yaaaaaaaaaay!

For those who are unfamiliar with high-tunnels, they are unheated greenhouses constructed with aluminum emt conduit bent into high hoops and then covered with greenhouse plastic. The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) offers financial assistance for installation of such a growing structure.

I had submitted the application with the NRCS last summer on a whim─I wasn’t even sure I wanted a high-tunnel! That’s a big structure to erect and maintain by myself! What’s more, the NRCS only pays you after construction is completed, so the farmer has to come up with the funds initially, and after buying the farm and making the investments needed to get up and running at this location, I’m financially tapped out until Runamuk comes up to speed.

But it was an opportunity, and I firmly believe that “We miss 100% of the chances we don’t take.”

So I submitted the application, but doubted I’d be approved─vegetable production was a very small part of my plan; surely the NRCS would find other candidates more suitable than an operation geared toward pollinator conservation?

Apparently someone thought Runamuk was very suitable indeed.

I admit that the site is fairly ideal: flat, level ground that drains well, with easy access to water and electricity. Yet it still came as a surprise when Nick Pairitz at the Somerset County NRCS office called to tell me that Runamuk had been approved for a tunnel.

Initially I was rather dismayed; a high-tunnel is a much larger project than anything I’ve ever done, and I am just one person─one woman. Yet, as tender seedlings fill the Alternate Living Room, spilling over onto our enclosed Porch, I can’t deny the benefits of such a growing structure would offer this farmer.

I recalled old Tom Eickenberg, recent retiree from Johnny’s, made it a point once to tell me that he’d put his high-tunnel up on his own, just to see if it could be done, and he’d assured me that day that he believed I could do the same (thank you for believing in me, Tom!!!). And so, I took a deep breath and signed the paperwork. Runamuk will have it’s high-tunnel.

Increased Wholesale Production

After 6 years attending the Madison Farmers’ Market, I’ve decided that my time would be better served by focusing on distributing our products wholesale to established retailers. It was an incredibly tough decision for me to leave the Madison Farmers’ Market, but now that I have a #foreverfarm, I’ve become keenly aware of where my energy is going. It’s a lot for one person to manage, and I cannot yet give up my part-time job at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which limits my on-farm days, and having parental responsibilities is even further restricting. I have to be very careful with my time.

The farmers’ market essentially takes 2 days from my work-week─1 day to prepare product, and another day at market. Johnny’s takes another 2 days. I began to realize last summer that 3 days on the farm was not going to be enough. The point was really driven home, though, when my schedule at Johnny’s increased to 4 long days per week during the Call Center’s busy season. The farm requires more than 3 days per week from me at this point, and if I’m going to grow Runamuk into the kind of educational center that I’ve envisioned, I need to eventually not be at Johnny’s. At all.

Note: To all my Johnny’s peeps who are reading this─don’t panic, that’s still a year or 2 out. I’ll be in the office for my next shift. I promise.

organic eggs
Organic and grass-fed, farm-fresh eggs from Runamuk!

I’ve decided to focus exclusively on wholesale distribution and have assembled a list of retailers I’m hoping to work with. Runamuk’s product list includes our beeswax soaps, herbal salves, candles, uncertified-organic non-gmo eggs, and we will soon have fresh vegetables to offer, as well as raw honey (harvested at the end of July and in September). If you, or someone you know, would be interested in selling Runamuk’s products, email to request our Wholesale Product List for pricing information.

Farmstand

Initially the plan was simply to convert the frame of a pop-up garage into a hoop-house for seedling production and sell bee-friendly plants right out front through the month of May. Now, with the new tunnel coming, and increased vegetable production in the garden, I’ve decided that the porch should be converted into a casual farmstand. To that end, I’m looking for a used refrigerator to hold eggs and vegetables, and I’m considering options for a display of other farm goods, too.

I’m not sure how well a farmstand will go over here in New Portland, but I’m actually only 11 minutes from Kingfield, and route 16 practically goes right by the farmhouse. I’m hoping that with a little promotion (and some creative and colorful signage), I can attract a few locals, and some of the tourists that travel up and down this main thoroughfare.

Beginning in May, the farmstand will be open Thursday through Saturday 8am to 4pm. While it won’t be staffed, operating on the honor-system, I do plan to be largely on the farm those 3 days and I’ll be available to answer questions or offer assistance to customers.

Classes & Workshops

They’re back! On-farm classes and workshops for skill-sharing; I’m offering day-long workshops on beekeeping, as well as classes on bee-friendly farming, basic construction, and gardening for beginners.

There’s plenty of space here, so if you’re interested in participating, but are “from away”, don’t hesitate to email me to inquire about bringing your tent or RV to camp out back.

Check out our Classes & Workshops page to get more details on the programs Runamuk offers.

Selling Bees!

At long last Runamuk has bees available for local beekeepers to purchase! This is a pretty monumental milestone for me and it feels appropriate that it coincides with our first growing season at our #foreverfarm. Even still, it’s hard for me to part with them, lol, and I admit that I would not do so if I did not need the space for this season’s splits and new Queens.

runamuk queen
Runamuk Queens are a cross between Carnolian and Russian genetics that I’ve found to work well here in Maine.

Last season was my second attempt at Queen-rearing and I produced 35 viable Maine Queens from my own stock of carnolian and Russian honeybees. I used those new Queens to replace every single Queen in my apiary, and made as many nucs as possible in hopes of overwintering them. I filled up every bit of equipment available to me, and Runamuk went into winter with 32 hives. It was not an easy winter for the bees, however most of Runamuk’s colonies came through looking strong. If I had wanted to, I could have bought equipment, housed each of these nucs myself and significantly increased the size of my apiary. But because I chose to invest in the garden and orchard this season instead of the apiary, I need to maintain the apiary as it is.

I did not promote it loudly as I have a very limited number of colonies that I’m willing to part with, and I knew the market’s demand would far surpass Runamuk’s supply. Indeed, the 10 overwintered nucs that I had available have already been spoken for and deposits taken.

There’s still opportunity to get a “Spring Nuc” from Runamuk though, or to get your name on the list for one of my Maine-raised mated or un-mated Queens. Check out Our Bees for details and reserve yours today.

More sheep!

The sheep have grown on me, and I really enjoy having them on the farm. Following Miracle’s death, I’ve come to realize that I definitely need more than 2, but I’m pretty adamant about not having more than 5. I see sheep as an integral component in my strategies for improving soil health here at Runamuk, as well a manageable source of meat for my family and a few others.

And so we have the new ram, whom I’ve dubbed Ghirardelli, like the bittersweet dark chocolate, and the new ewe coming soon, and Jack, the wether who’s coming from my friends, Ken and Kamala Hahn. I’m pretty excited at the thought of the new sheep babies we’ll have here at this time next year!

First broilers on pasture

This season I’ll raise my first-ever broilers on pasture─that’s a pretty big deal in my book.

The idea is to put some meat in my freezer, but the broilers tie in well with my ambitions to improve the soil here through rotational grazing. 50 freedom rangers that will be shipped to the farm in July.

Friends have already volunteered to help slaughter and process the birds, and they’re happy enough to be paid in the form of grass-fed, organic chicken for their own freezer. I find it highly satisfying to be able to share such good food with the people I care about.

Camping at Runamuk

Tucked just inside the forest at the far end of Runamuk’s back-field, I’ll eek out two campsites for potential guests to the farm, and travelers seeking adventure in Maine’s Bigelow Mountain Region. A dirt drive runs through the middle of the field, making access by vehicle easy enough, and the ground is level─ideal for tents, but I can also host campers and RVs (though I have no intention of setting up an RV park).

I’ve created a listing for Runamuk on Hipcamp. Hipcamp is an online service connecting travelers seeking campsites with private property owners offering accommodations in a wide array of settings: ranches, vineyards, treehouses, yurts, backcountry campsites, cabins, air streams, glamping tents and more. If you can think it up, someone somewhere probably has those unique accommodations for you.

I’m picturing a picnic table and fire-pit at each campsite, a shared pit-toilet tucked in the back, out of the way, and an outdoor shower if I can manage to devise one. The wooden platform that I hauled out of the coop last summer will become a tent platform at one of the sites.

There will be signs, and some creative touches of whimsy; I want camping at Runamuk to be magical and special. Life is happening here; I want visitors to notice and walk away with a good feeling and good memories of this special little bee-friendly farm in the mountains of western Maine .

maine mountains
The Bigelow Mountain Region of western Maine.

There are a lot of positives about our location here in New Portland, but the fact is─we’re half an hour from the nearest “city”; most people probably drive through the village of North New Portland and don’t even realize it’s a town. Typically, travelers pass through on their way north or south; rarely is New Portland the destination. I plan to put New Portland on the map with my conservation farm, and I’m hoping the on-site accommodations make it easier for people from away to come and visit.

Ready to Go

As you can see, we’ve got a lot of things happening at Runamuk this 2019 season. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work on my part, but I’m ready to go. Everything I have done, every move I have made─has been to bring me here to this place at this point in time. I’m ready to do the work to grow Runamuk into the conservation farm that I’ve always envisioned. But even I can admit when I might need a little help (though admitting I need help is easier than asking for it, lol).

I’ve had a few offers of help from friends that I intend to call in for bigger projects like the chicken-processing and skinning the high-tunnel, but I’m thinking it may be prudent to organize a spring work-party too. Historically, I have more seedlings than I can manage in the spring and I’ll find myself scrambling in late June to get as many of the remaining plants in the ground as possible before they perish. Now that we finally have a permanent location, I’m growing copious numbers of perennial flowers and herbs to be planted here for the bees and beneficial insects. I may need help to get them all in the ground and─if you ask me─a “Spring Planting Party” sounds like a really great time. I’ll set a date and get back to you on it.

Now if only it would stop snowing so that spring could finally come….

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