Confession #2: Conservation Contract

conservation contract

Last Thursday, this farmer Closed on a Conservation Contract with the FSA that will safeguard Runamuk Acres for the next 50 years. In turn, the farm received a significant reduction on it’s mortgage. I’m floored to be a legitimate conservation farm, yet it all came about because I failed to make my mortgage payment that first year. This confession is about farm-finances, and how that colossal failing turned out to be a blessing in disguise for this female-farmer.

Over My Head

I confess to you, dear reader, that I was unable to make my mortgage payment in my first year. There. I’ve said it.

If you’ve been following along with my story (first of all, thank you so much for that!) likely you’ll recall what a great and mighty leap it was for me to go from landless farmer to farm-owner. My income was just barely enough to qualify for a mortgage in the first place. Then there were expenses related to moving, first-year investments to be made, and a lot of work to be put in to grow the farm and it’s customer base. What’s more, because we came to the farm in July 2018, I wasn’t actually able to plant any crops to increase my financial-standing until spring of 2019. Truthfully, I was in a little over my head.

farm-finance struggle
I love Brene Brown!!!

Even now that this failing has turned into the most wonderful blessing, I am ashamed of the why and the how of this particular story. I’ve agonized over how much detail to share with you, reluctant to admit that I’m a failure─scared of what the haters would say. In the end, I had to talk through it with Deron (remember Deron? my sexy, blue-eyed boyfriend?) to be able to put these words down for you. Ultimately, we both felt that my story might help someone else overcome their own farm-finance struggle, and that alone makes the tale worth sharing.

Leading up to buying the farm back in 2018, I’d been careful with my credit and my expenses. Once I came to New Portland and began establishing Runamuk here, I maxed out my credit cards very quickly. At that point, I was just settling in─trying to get the ball rolling for Runamuk at it’s new home. Even working part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, it was all I could do to keep the lights on, the water running, and everyone fed. Then, when I lost my position with the company and decided to give fulltime farming a try, I had to choose between paying the credit cards every month and buying feed for my livestock. Which would you choose?

So there I was, summer of 2019, unable to make my first mortgage payment, and now I was also delinquent on my credit card bills. Terror fueled my every day as I waited for a foreclosure letter to arrive in the mailbox. I was coaxing myself through panic attacks as I moved chickens around the field. Trying to bolster myself as I trucked veggies to the Kingfield Farmers’ Market, telling myself it wasn’t all an act in futility. Shame kept me awake at night. To have overcome so many obstacles along the path to farm-ownership, only to fail in my very first year was the ultimate humiliation.

Hope to Hold Onto

fsa conservation contract
USDA Service Center for Somerset County.

Janice Ramirez, my agent at the Somerset County FSA branch gave me hope to hold onto. She told me there were several servicing options for such a situation, but we had to wait 90 days after the mortgage payment due date to be able to start the process for any of those programs. She also said that I would need to have all of my accounts current (including my credit cards), and that my numbers would need to match those submitted the year before, which included income from off-farm employment…meaning I had to go back to work.

I had no idea how the FSA expected a single woman to grow a farm-business to the point where it could pay a mortgage if the farmer was not on the farm to do the work. I also had no idea how I was going to manage working with 2 kids at home, 1 with special needs (at that time William was still coming to the farm 2 nights a week), and 1 for whom I received regular calls from the school for behavioral issues. Nonetheless, I went job hunting anyway.

Sugarloaf ski resort is just 30 minutes from the farm. I knew it would be easy enough to secure a job there. Indeed, it was maybe 15 minutes after I’d submitted my application online that I had an email requesting an in-person interview. I took a job as a maid at the Hotel on the mountain, figuring it would be easy enough compared to the work I’m used to doing on the farm. Little did I know that would turn out to be the singlemost horrid work-experience of my life─aside from the glorious mountain views of course. But that’s a story for another day lol. In the meanwhile, I filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy to eliminate my credit card debt, which amounted to nearly $20K.

Chapter 7

Filing bankruptcy is another thing I’m not super proud of. It feels like yet another huge failing. Even so, I’m of the mind that this is a warped and twisted financial system set up by the wealthy corporate elite to make money off the masses. I also believe that these options exist to be utilized and I am not above using them if it means I can continue to farm.

I decided I would do this just once. Moving forward, I vowed I would not use credit cards or take any other loans to advance my farm. Runamuk would work strictly on a cash or barter system. In January of 2020 my Chapter 7 bankruptcy case was finalized, zeroing out my accounts and giving me a fresh financial start. This brought me in line to be able to pursue servicing with the FSA in the form of this conservation contract.

What is a Conservation Contract?

The purpose of the program is to help protect and conserve important environmental resources on the customer’s land. By participating in this program, customers reduce their FSA debt, thereby improving their overall financial stability. Borrowers can conserve wildlife habitat and improve the environmental and scenic value of their farms. In exchange, the FSA reduces a portion of the customer’s real estate-related FSA debt.

Debt for Nature Conservation Contract
BraeTek at 13.

To get the maximum financial benefit for the farm, I had to consider a 50-year contract. That’s effectively the remainder of my working career, or the rest of my life depending─and a good chunk of my children’s lives as well. This was a big decision, and not something to be taken lightly.

Under the terms and conditions of the contract, I cannot do anything more with that acreage than maintain it for public appreciation or scientific study as wildlife habitat. No building, timber harvesting, grazing or farming of any kind. What’s more, I have to protect it, ensuring that no one encroaches on Runamuk’s boundaries─else I am held liable with the US government.

BraeTek was just 12 when I brought forth the idea of the conservation contract. Ultimately, it is my hope that at least one of mine or Deron’s children will take up my legacy when I am ready to give up the reigns to the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm. Including the kids in the decision-making processes gives them some sense of responsibility and accountability for the farm.

What’s more, I know that even if they move away and never step foot on another farm for the rest of their lives, they will carry these experiences and memories with them for the rest of their lives. It will have some effect. As mothers and fathers I guess that’s the best we can hope for…that our children will carry some part of their childhood─some part of us─with them into the world.

Go forth, my son, my daughter, but do not forget me…

Determining Eligibility

It has been an incredibly slow and painstaking process to reach Closing on this project. The FSA does not do very many of these conservation contracts, and my agent had never done one herself. Statewide, there are only 55 Farm Service Agency Debt for Nature Conservation Contracts─just 3 in Somerset County (including Runamuk).

To begin with, my FSA agent had to determine if I was eligible for the program. We had to identify the boundaries for the acreage I wanted to put under contract. Then, we had to establish whether or not that acreage would qualify for the program.

conservation easement
Runamuk’s conservation acreage.

Eligible lands for contract include:

  • Highly erodible lands.
  • Lands containing aquatic life, endangered species, or wildlife habitat of local, regional, or national importance.
  • Lands in 100-year floodplains.
  • Areas of high water quality or scenic value.
  • Historic or cultural properties listed or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Aquifer recharge areas of local, regional, Tribal,or State importance.
  • Buffer zones necessary to protect proposed conservation easement areas.
  • Areas that contain soils generally not suited for cultivation.
  • Areas within or adjacent to Federal, State, Tribal, or local conservation areas.

Site Inspection

The FSA recruited a team of specialists to do a thorough site inspection. This was a big hurdle to be overcome, yet it was something I had really been looking forward to. As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, a self-taught naturalist, and avid nature-lover, I just knew this property had potential. Indeed, it seemed as though the Universe was confirming that instinct when just 3 days before the review, I spotted a Canadian Lynx crossing the road from Runamuk. Surely that could only be a good omen?

On June 2nd I led the party of four on a roundabout tour of the acreage I’d selected for conservation. The group consisted of Janice Ramirez, who is my FSA agent, Nick Pairitz, soil conservationist with the local NRCS, Jeremy Markuson, biologist, also with the NRCS, and one Joe Dembeck, with Somerset County’s Soil & Water Conservation District. Joe had worked as a fisheries biologist for 20 years in positions with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

It was a great privilege for this farmer to have such a wealth of knowledge and expertise on the farm. To see my property through eyes trained by years of education and experience was a fascinating and priceless gift. Their report confirmed what I already suspected about this piece of land, and offered up new insights into this little wildlife refuge of mine.

Site A

conservation agriculture
Runamuk’s enchanting little wetland habitat.

Before coming to the farm, these men spent time in their respective offices reviewing the proposed conservation acreage. Using Google Maps, topomaps, and various USGS maps, they had identified 2 sites of particular interest.

“Location A” is a small wetland area that also happens to sit upon a large underground aquifer. This aquifer feeds the town’s municipal water supply, serving 60 households in the village of North New Portland. The pumping station lies maybe a hundred yards beyond the wetland and Runamuk’s property boundaries, sitting alongside Route 16. That alone makes the site worth protecting.

Check out this article from The Irregular about New Portland’s new pump station, which was recently constructed in 2004.

What’s more, the tiny unnamed stream running through the site empties into Gilman Pond, which flows into Gilman Stream. Gilman Stream is home to a thriving colony of Brook Floater mussels. The Brook Floater is a species of freshwater mussel listed as a threatened species in Maine, and listed as endangered or threatened in nearly every state in which it is found. That also makes this site worth protecting.

A Little About Mussels

conservation contract for wildlife
Brook floater mussel. PC Phyllis Grant via Instagram @phyllyirl

I like mussels, as I enjoy fish and seafood when I can get it. In doing research for this post, I learned a lot about freshwater mussels, their role in the aquatic ecosystem, and the role of the landscape in their distribution.

Did you know that freshwater mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of animals in North America? Of the nearly 300 species found in the US, 70 species (or 24%) are currently listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. 17 (or 6%) are being considered for federal listing, and 35 (12%) are believed to be extinct. A whopping 75% of the country’s mussel fauna is listed as endangered, threatened, special concern, or extirpated in some part of their range.

I firmly believe that very creature on our planet has a role of some sort to play in their ecosystems. Mussels are a valuable food source for wildlife like otters, muskrats, raccoons, geese, fish and humans. Most importantly though, mussels recycle nutrients, and improve the water quality and structure of the benthic environment (the eco-region at the bottom of a body of water). The filter feeding activity of an entire mussle community removes large quantities of suspended material from the water column and reduces turbidity. Most of these nutrients are quickly released back into the aquatic ecosystem.

To learn more about Freshwater Mussels, check out this 2007 report provided by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. It’s fascinating stuff!

Back to Site A…

A small stream of crystalline water cuts through the terrain, with high banks on either side fostering a diversity of wetland plants and grasses. Dead and dying trees, mostly cedars, live in the heart of this wetland. The entire setting is surrounded by a dense and towering forest, making it seem separate and apart from the rest of the world.

“This is ideal habitat for establishing a maternity colony of bats,” the biologist, Jeremy Markuson pointed out. He explained how bats will roost under the peeling bark of the dead and dying cedars. “They like little clearings like this, where they can swoop in after insects at dusk.”

Joe Dembeck lay on the rickety old snowmobile bridge that sags across the unnamed stream, peering down into the water to see what kind of aquatic life might live there. I was very pleased when he discovered brook trout fry, indicating an essential spawning grounds for native fish. Likely the fish come from Gilman Pond about 1500 yards from the site. Incidentally, trout just happens to be this farmers’ favorite fish to eat.

Site B

farm service agency debt for nature contract
The Hackmatack is the only conifer to lose it’s needles every fall.
PC: Caitlin Connell via Instagram @sunny_slopes_farm

Diversity thrives in wetlands and I’d expected that site would draw these men, but “Location B” surprised me. It is a scrappy 5-acre parcel that is sparsely vegetated and─at first glance─seemingly devoid of life. There, the previous owner removed the topsoil and tree stumps following a timber harvest a couple decades ago. Knowing that there are 2 gravel pits bordering my property, it is my guess they were searching for gravel deposits there. The forest has struggled to regain a foothold in the gravelly soil left behind, and I had thought it a rather sad and forlorn part of the forest til the review team cast another light upon it.

The forest has been slow to regenerate there. Growth is sparse, comprised mainly of some red and white pine, and a lot of Northern Larch (aka Tamarack, “Hackmatack” or─my favorite─the “Hack”), which I am very partial to. To me it looked like a sad, sorry piece of land where nature was struggling to overcome the effects of human activity. According to the biologists, however, this is great habitat for turtle nesting, ideal overwintering habitat for myriad native insects, including solitary bees and wasps, and perfect habitat for the common nighthawk, whose populations have been in decline for 20 years now.

Click here to read the review team’s entire report…

How Do You Do It?

runamuk acres conservation farm
Your friendly neighborhood farmer.

“How do you do it?” asked Deron’s 80 year old father. We sat over coffee at the Whittemore’s family home in Madison. David Whittemore Sr. looked across the kitchen table at me with an incredulous expression on his time-weathered face. There was no judgement or criticism in the question. He sincerely wanted to know, how am I able to afford to farm full-time by myself? How am I making it work?

I shrugged and answered honestly, “I really don’t know. But somehow I’ve managed to keep the lights on, the water running, and everyone is fed, happy and healthy.”

Actually, I wonder a lot about how I’m making it work. Mostly, I think it comes down to the sacrifices I’ve been willing to make and the amount of effort I’m willing to give it. I could do an entire post just about the things I’ve gone without or given up. For now, let it suffice to say I’ve gotten pretty crafty when it comes to keeping my expenses low. In this way, I’ve managed to keep things going here. This conservation contract is just one more tool in my arsenal that keeps this girl on the farm and farming.

By entering 41.47 of Runamuk’s 53 acres into this conservation contract for the next 50 years, the FSA took $99,900.09 off the farm’s mortgage. Holy poop!!! In turn, that reduces the farm’s annual mortgage payment from $8750 to $3,927, making solo-farming much more attainable. Best of all, this makes Runamuk an official conservation farm─standing proud for wildlife, and protecting our environment at the local level. I’m pretty darned proud of that!

Thank you for following along with the story of this female farmer! 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!

Runamuk’s Farmstay AirBnB & Surprise Giveaway!

It comes with it’s own set of unique challenges, yet I’m rather enjoying Runamuk’s Farmstay BnB. The people are always interesting characters, I get to serve as ambassador to the Bigelow Mountain Region that I love so much, and I’m exposing people to the realities of farm-life. While they’re here, I’m feeding guests real food that I have either grown myself or sourced from other local farmers. It’s an exciting new twist in Runamuk’s farm-journey, which has led me to this: I’m offering up a FREE 2-night stay to one lucky winner in a surprise giveaway contest! Surprise! 😀

What It’s Like

Friends have asked what it’s like to have strangers coming into my house. Admittedly this was my own biggest fear prior to launching into this AirBnB thing. Fortunately I have a big house. The way it is laid out allows me to keep the 2 guest rooms on one end of the house. The common spaces are centrally located on the first floor, and I am able to keep the front half of the house for the family.

guest room infographic
Thanks to the layout of my ginormous house, the guest spaces are separate from the rest of the house. Common spaces like the kitchen, dining and bathrooms are in the center of the first floor, while the family space is on the opposite end of the house, away from guests.

My second biggest fear was how William would take having guests in the house, and how guests might react if they crossed paths with him. His Autism has given William a resistance to change, a serious need for personal space, and absolutely no filter on his mouth. So far he has not crossed paths with guests, but I’m dreading that day when it inevitably happens. I hope folks realize that this is a family home, and like any other family, we deal with the same sort of every day struggles as anyone else. Unfortunately we can’t shut those struggles off just because we have guests in the house, though I try to ensure things run smoothly and that folks enjoy a pleasant stay.

Anyone who is using AirBnB is comfortable going into someone else’s house or property for a stay. AirBnB has done a good job with their review-system too. Both the hosts and the guests have reviews, so hosts like me can screen potential guests before we decide if we want to accept their reservation. Everyone who has come to Runamuk since I began hosting in August, has been amiable enough, and I’ve had some interesting conversations with some fascinating people that I would not otherwise have met.

The Breakfast

runamuk breakfast_muffins
Breakfast at Runamuk Acres!

“Breakfast is not part of the AirBnB thing,” one guest told me when I asked what I could fix for him in the morning.

“No, but it’s part of my thing.” I responded. In fact, it’s been a big selling point with many guests, and everyone has been enthusiastic about the food.

When people eat at Runamuk, they’re getting food I have either grown here, or sourced from other local farmers that I know. Everything is farm-fresh and homemade: 100% real food. As a farmer, I am able to grow most of my own vegetables. I learned early on to bake and make things from scratch to stretch our household food budget. Even when finances are tight I’m eating pretty good─and I’m a darned good cook when I set my mind to it, thank you very much!

I really like to offer guest eggs and homefries, since this showcases Runamuk’s primo-eggs and my recently dug potatoes. Sometimes I have homemade bread or biscuits on hand. Other times I’ll make fresh muffins with zucchini, or Maine blueberries, or pumpkin…whatever’s in season. If a guest wants pancakes, I make big fluffy pancakes from scratch. If they wanted a waffle, I could do that too. I make a mean omelette, and have taken to keeping specialty breakfast meats just for the potential guest who asks for it. Likewise with coffee and tea; I’ve collected an assortment of higher end beverages to appeal to visitors, while I continue to drink Maxwell house when it’s just myself. It’s nice having someone to cook for and I like the feeling that I’m sending people off with a full belly of farm-fresh food.

Now that I’ve been doing it for a couple of months and have hosted over a dozen guests, I’m rather enjoying serving as ambassador to the Bigelow Mountain Region─Kingfield, Carrabassett Valley, and Sugarloaf. This really is a beautifully stunning part of Maine, and it’s a travesty that so many tourists come to Maine never venturing far from the coastal regions. Sure lobster is great, and the ocean is beautiful too, but have you seen the Bigelows!?

The Bigelows

On a clear day travelers can see the Bigelow mountains rising up out of the landscape from more than thirty miles away. The Bigelow Range boasts a whopping 5 of Maine’s 10 highest peaks─the acclaimed 4000-footer club. Their blue-grey ridges on the horizon captivate the eye, and they’re surrounded by an unending swath of Maine wilderness that still teams with native wildlife. They really are breathtaking.

bigelow mountain range
The Bigelow Mountain Range splayed out on the horizon.

When I was 11 years old my parents bought a piece of land in Salem, Maine─an unorganized township just west of Kingfield. I remember being spellbound by the Bigelows the very first time we traveled to Salem. Even today the sight of those mountains fills by heart to bursting and brings tears to my eyes just to behold them. That feeling spilled over in a big way on the Autumnal Equinox as I drove up through Carrabasset Valley to the foot of Bigelow herself.

All summer I have been working long and hard, and eventually began to find myself longing for a day away─a chance to recharge and reset. I wanted some kind of adventure in the great outdoors. Hiking up a mountain has long been a favored past-time for me, and the ultimate way to connect with the Earth, and reconnect with myself. It recharges this farmer on a spectrum of levels. What’s more, now that I am here─farming on my very own farm, exactly where I always wanted to be: within range of the Bigelows─I feel the need to pay homage to these mountains. And so I decided I would take a day to climb the Horn Pond Trail on Bigelow Mountain.

hiking bigelow
Murphy has a big tongue-lolling smile on his face til I told him to “Stay” for the picture…

Bigelow is a long mountain ridge with several summits including Avery Peak, at 4,145 feet, at 3,805 feet, Cranberry Peak at 3,194 feet and Little Bigelow Mountain at roughly 3,070 feet. Hiking the whole of it involves an overnight stay on the summit─which I am looking forward to doing some day, but right now I cannot spare that much time off the farm. Instead, I’ve opted to do it in sections. A couple years back I did Little Bigelow, but have not been hiking since buying the farm last summer, so I was pretty stoked to be going out.

It was just Murphy and I, which was actually quite perfect. We worked through our morning critter-chores, then loaded our gear and ourselves into the Subaru, and by 8:30 dog and farmer were heading north through Kingfield, and on into the Carrabasset Valley.

The road there follows alongside the shallow, and swift-running Carrabasset River, as it winds it’s way between the mountains and high hills that loom on either side. The landscape is picturesque─New England at it’s finest, and steeped in generations of tradition. At this time of year, the trees are resplendent in their bright yellow, orange, and brilliant red hues, and as I drove I was overwhelmed with such love for these mountains─such gratitude─that I found myself sobbing as I approached that great hulking mass of rock.

To have found my way to this place in my life where I bought a farm─within 30 minutes of the Bigelows─and I’m living this lifestyle that is so important and so rewarding─how can I be anything but humbled and grateful for this existence? There before the mountains that inspired it all, how could I not feel beholden to them? And so I cried great tears of joy as I drove through the little village of Carrabasset Valley, further north to the Stratton Brook Trailhead, and I reaffirmed my vow to do all that I can to always protect nature─especially the Bigelow Mountains.

The Wrong Mountain

north crocker trailhead kiosk
AT Trailhead Kiosk

Ironically, I ended up hiking the wrong mountain that day.

How does that even happen, you ask?

Leave it to me to end up halfway up the wrong mountain before discovering the truth of it, but having never hiked this side of Bigelow before, I wasn’t entirely certain where the Stratton Brook Trailhead was, and through as series of mix-ups and mishaps I lost my map, said “fk-it I’m going anyway”, and took the wrong darn trail.

……………I. Am. AWESOME!!!

With the AT running through the region, as well as the network of trails created by the Maine Huts & Trails, we have an abundance of trails to chose from. I’d like to say that it’s easy enough to confuse one trail with another, but I also completely overlooked the fact that Bigelow is on the eastern side of Route 27, and not the western side that I ended up on. As a rule I have a very good sense of direction─especially in the area where I grew up─so I’m quite mortified to have made such silly a mistake.

The trail was steep right out the gate, and densely wooded with little to no view all the way up that mountain. It seemed to go on and on, and there were very few hikers along the trail. When I came upon a pair of down-coming hikers I ventured to ask: “how much farther to the pond?” I’d promised Murphy a swim in Horn Pond on Bigelow Mountain.

The twenty-something girl looked at me like I had a cupcake on my head, then, in a rather faraway voice that reminded me of a mystic, she said, “Uh─this is the AT.”

I laughed inwardly, well of course I knew it was a section of the AT! and returned patiently, “Yes, but one of the trails on Bigelow is the Horn Pond Trail.”

“Oh, Bigelow’s in the other direction.” she said. “You’re going the wrong way.”

Of course I was. I couldn’t help but laugh, “So what mountain am I on?”

“This is North Crocker.” said the girl’s male companion.

“Oh my goodness!” I said, still laughing at myself. “Well, I guess we’re doing Crocker today, Murph!”

Making Friends

I decided that if the Universe intended for me to climb North Crocker Mountain on that day, then that was just what I would do, and on up that mountain I went─10.4 miles round trip! North Crocker is Maine’s 4th highest mountain, at an elevation of 4,168 feet, and it is a bit of a grueling hike too. Fairly steep-going all the way, picking one’s way over rocks and tree roots, though the trail would plateau periodically, giving my poor legs and my bad ankle a bit of a break. The forest was dense and had not been cut in a long long time─if ever─and felt like something ancient…primal. I felt small and insignificant as I climbed up through that forest, and yet supremely connected to the tangled web of organic systems working around me. The stone beneath my feet offered up that transference of Earth’s energy that I was craving. Replenishing me in a way that nothing else seems to do.

at trailmarker
The top of North Crocker Mountain!

There’s no view at the top to reward the hiker, but Murphy and I were welcomed by a small troop of north-bound through-hikers to the Appalachian Trail.

Murphy, of course, is welcome everywhere by just about everyone and makes quick friends of them all, while I shared homemade chocolate chip cookies─which is another good way to make friends. These hikers were looking forward to passing the 2000-mile marker that day.

“Oh!” I said around a mouthful of tuna sandwich. “I just passed it on the way up here. The number 2000 is depicted in stone along the side of the trail.”

We shared a stories over lunch, they all seemed to be recent college graduates making the AT-pilgrimage before setting out into the world’s workforce. They asked about me and I was proud to tell them that I’m a local: “I’ve always been in the area, but I just bought a farm in New Portland last year.” and I told them a little about Runamuk Acres and my new farmstay BnB.

One young woman promised to look me up. She was from Lubec─a small town on the coast of Maine that happens to be our country’s easternmost point. She said she loves the Bigelow area, but it’s nearly 4 hours away, so taking a day trip isn’t practical. Apparently her mom loves farms, and she wanted to bring her for a stay at Runamuk so they could visit the Bigelows.

The Guests

Some of my guests have also been hikers. For folks in southern New England states like Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusettes, Runamuk is a nice jumping point to the Bigelows. We’re 30 minutes to Sugarloaf and the Bigelow Preserve, and it really is the most beautiful drive at any time of the year.

Sometimes folks traveling back and forth to Canada will crash here for sleep before continuing onward. Recently a pair of friends making a sojourn together on motorcycles came from Canada on their way to Portland; they were planning to travel back up to New Bruswick along the coast, with a stop near Arcadia.

There was also a lovely older couple from Connecticut. The husband (80-something maybe?) was in the Peace Corp back in the 60s. His troop was having a reunion at a location down on the Maine coast. From there they were traveling to Quebec for a few days, before going to visit the wife’s sister (or was it her aunt?) over in Bangor. After that they would return home. This particular couple were very interested in the story of the man-made islands in the Kennebec River as they came up Route 16. They loved this old house, my old tractor Walter, and were very engaging─with questions and curiosities. They freely shared stories of their own that made for a very pleasant interaction.

farmstay reviews
Some of Runamuk’s reviews on AirBnb.

I think my ideal guests have been the hikers and those that appreciate the quality of food that I’m offering. It’s challenging for me to keep the house in a state of cleanliness that is acceptable to everyone; some folks are more particular about that sort of thing than others. I knew going into this that I would have to step up my game. Housework is my least favorite thing to do, though I do take great pride in taking care of this very special old house. I think I’ve done a good job of that mostly. Yet, this is a family-home and a working-farm, and for the price I’m asking it’s a pretty sweet deal (just $26/night right now!). Even if the rooms are sparsely furnished, and my dinning room table has a little clutter on it…

Can I help it if I cleaned the bathroom before bed the night before, but my 12yo took a shower before school and then when the guest gets up the bathroom has 12yo’s laundry on the floor? Not entirely.

When the sheep escape and I ask the guest to cook his own eggs because I’m chasing livestock around the field, is that unreasonable of me?

What if a guest comes on a Friday night after I’ve been prepping for market all day, and the kitchen looks like a bomb hit it? Not much I can really do about that, but I always have it cleaned up before guests get up in the morning so that I can cook their breakfast. I’m up by 4 afterall.

I can, however, avoid opening the fermentation buckets while guests are eating their breakfast right there at the table, lol. The scratch grains can be a little─”odoriferous” once they get to day 3 or 4 in the soaking process. I can imagine that might be off-putting to some folks lol.

I’m getting the hang of it now though, I think. Figuring out people’s expectations, and how I can best meet them while ensuring the needs of my family and my farm. But I also know that an “authentic farmstay” is not necessarily for everyone.

My guest rooms are sparsely furnished. I’m a divorced, single mom who just bought a big-ol’ farmhouse! Everything I owned did not fill this place up, and I don’t have a lot of extra stuff or funds to sink into decorating the guest spaces. I’ve taken the best of what little I own and put it all into those 2 rooms─including my own bed. I am currently sleeping on the couch to make ends-meet, and no, it is not a comfortable couch lol.

New and beginning farmers: remember what I said about sacrificing for your farm-dream? and how far are you willing to go? Well, this farmer would sleep on the floor if it meant success for Runamuk.

Win a Stay at Runamuk!

If you─or someone you know─might be interested in an “authentic farmstay” at Runamuk Acres, I am offering up the chance for a FREE 2-night stay! If you’re within driving range, and can cover the cost of your own gas, I’ll put you up and feed you while you explore the Bigelow Mountain Region. You can get to know my super-friendly sheep, learn more about how I’m farming here, or just experience Runamuk first-hand and in-person! If you have a skill you’d like to learn while you’re here, I’m happy to oblige; want my recommendations for day-hikes, dinner, or scenic drives? I will hook. you. up!

2 Nights FREE at Runamuk’s Farmstay B&B

The winner will be able to select whatever dates they would like to use their 2 free nights, though I am working to earn my “Superhost” badge with AirBnB in order to gain more frequent bookings. With market season drawing to a close, and winter coming soon, the farm needs the income and I could use your good review sooner than later. We’re also entering peak foliage season in this area, so now is a very good time to visit! Just sayin…

maine foliage report
Maine Foliage Report for the week of 9/25/2019

Renewed by the Mountain

The morning after I climbed North Crocker Mountain I was broken and sore. I’m in pretty decent shape, but a 10.4 mile hike up and down a mountain rated as “challenging” wrecked my poor body─especially my bad ankle. When I was 17, I broke the bones in my right foot in 5 places during basic training; that foot has never been right since, and still plagues me sometimes. I never let it hold me back though.

As I hobbled around the farm that day, I couldn’t help but think that the Universe sent me to Crocker for the express purpose of tearing me down so that I could be rebuilt once more. Prior to my hike I had been overworked and overwhelmed, worried and stressed about my situation. The mountain tested me. It tested my own physical limits─and even though I was popping the ibuprofen the following day just to get through the morning critter-chores, I felt that my core foundation: my personal values and principles, and my steadfast determination to protect nature through this work that I do─are stronger than ever. I am renewed by the mountain─and returned to the farm ready to face the challenges ahead of me.

…but I still want to climb the Horn Pond Trail on Bigelow someday soon!

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Enter to win a chance at a free 2-night stay here at Runamuk Acres, and come see the Bigelow Mountain Region in all it’s glory! Come be my guest!

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!

Geez, Sam!

maine nucleus colonies_2018

It’s mid-October, the temperatures outside are dropping and the beekeeping season is winding down. Runamuk’s 2018 farm-season has certainly been one for the books, mainly because this was the year we finally made farm-ownership possible─but for honey production it wasn’t the greatest of years. Even still, I’m happy with the way the season went and with the hives that I have going into the winter.

hyl-tun apiary
The Runamuk apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. Early August 2018.

Season Review

After losing twenty out of twenty-one hives over the course of the 2017-2018 winter the state of the Runamuk apiary was just a little precarious this spring. I’ve experienced hive losses before and have come to accept it as just another part of beekeeping, but it certainly makes it difficult to gain ground in this industry. With the purchase of a farm on the line, it was especially stressful.

I imported 10 packages of replacement bees from Georgia, bought 5 overwintered nucs, and managed to raise about 30 Queens of my own. Those Queens either replaced Queens in the southern packages, replaced bad Queens, or were added to nucleus colonies that are going to be overwintered in hopes of supplying my own replacement hives for this winter’s inevitable losses.

agriope at luke's apiary
Luke’s apiary in Madison, Maine.

For the last 2 seasons I’ve been managing the apiary of my friend, Luke Vigneault, in addition to my own. Our beekeeping journeys have run parallel over the years; we’ve shared orders on Queens, tended bees together, and learned from each other. I’ve been so impressed by Luke’s honeybee stock that I grafted from his hives to produce two-thirds of the Queens I raised this year.

Between the 2 of us, I’m managing 27 colonies at the moment─Runamuk’s 15, and Luke’s 12 hives. Hopefully this winter is kinder to us than last winter was.

Poor Honey Season

uncapped honey
Nectar of the Gods!

As for for honey production, this beekeeping season wasn’t really the greatest. Runamuk was not able to supply customers with the local, raw honey they’ve been clamoring for and I can’t help feeling like it’s a failing on my part (“Geez, Sam! What gives!?”). At the same time, I know what a set-back the harsh winter and loss of colonies was for my operation─because I had to wait for replacement bees and only had one weak hive in May (when the nectar-flow really gets underway here), I wasn’t able to capitalize on Maine’s spring honey-season.

In addition, the earlier part of the summer was exceedingly dry and flowers really weren’t producing much nectar, so I was feeding the bees a lot of sugar-syrup. Because the majority of my hives this year were new colonies, or were new Queens I was trying to establish, I wanted to give them every possible resource so they would have the best chance for survival. That means I fed all but the hives that were making honey, and whatever honey that was produced got redistributed among the nucs to ensure every hive has the stores it needs to make it through the winter.

Keeping Colonies Small & Tight

runamuk's hive set up
Runamuk’s single deep and medium hive set-up.

It’s my goal to keep my honeybee colonies “small and tight” going into winter. After 8 seasons working with bees, learning from other beekeepers, and learning from my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that bees overwinter more successfully when they’re not trying to occupy so much space. With this in mind I’ve adopted a single deep and medium box set-up for my brood nest. The frames of larvae to occupy the deep-box, positioned on the bottom, with a medium filled with honey settled on top.

During the season I’ll add more mediums as necessary─either to increase the colony’s capacity for brood, or for honey production, but I always want all that extra equipment to come off before the winter sets in.

Prioritizing Mite Treatments

I’m feeling really confident in the condition of the 27 colonies under my care. I’ve learned to prioritize mite-treatments and perform them as a rule the first week of August and mid-to-late September. If the infestation were severe, I would do another late October treatment as a final clean-up before the long winter. Mite-treatments are the pits, but having seen hives go down as a result of varroa─I know that it’s not pretty and it’s not a good feeling knowing that, as the beekeeper, you’re the one responsible for it.

I’ve learned too, that I can significantly reduce mite-levels in my hives and grow my apiary at the same time just by breaking up large colonies to make more nucs. That’s a win-win in my book. By breaking up hives and sticking to my schedule for mite-treatments, I’ve been able to keep some very healthy-looking bees these last few years, and I know that these methods─in tandem with my newfound Queen-raising skills─set Runamuk up for some big growth in the next few years.

I’m not treating the hives for nosema because this disease has not historically been an issue in my apiaries. If I had hives that were coming through the winter and had an excess of brown staining on the front of the hives, I would know that the fungus had infected the colonies and I would use the Fumagillian, administered in the sugar-syrup fed to the bees in the fall. There are lots of resources about nosema and how to prevent and treat that problem; the main thing is to be aware of it and to ensure your colonies are healthy and strong going into winter, and to take steps to ensure your hives are appropriately set up.

Winter Preparations

wintering bees
Two of Runamuk’s hives back in December of 2012.

That brings me to winter preparations. Things are almost over at the apiary for the 2018 beekeeping season. I’ll be taking mite-treatments OFF the hives this weekend. After that I won’t go back into the hives for anything more than to administer sugar-candy or pollen patties (should hives make it to March), until April.

At this point in the season I’m not manipulating frames. Since August I’ve been managing the hives with an eye toward winter; that means I’ve been moving brood “downstairs” to the bottom box, and positioning honey stores so that the colony can move up through the hive in what I hope is optimal fashion.

Sometime between now and Thanksgiving all of the inner covers will be switched out for wintering inner covers, which are deeper on one side and allow space for sugar-candy to sit under the telecoping cover. Many beekeepers fill that space with candy, but I prefer to lay my candy directly across the top bars─as close to the bees as I can get it.

I’ll put the candy on at the same time, then top it with some kind of moisture-absorbing material. This is crucial, and I think my attention to this detail is the reason I haven’t had much issue with nosema in my hives.

Nosema is a fungal disease which─like all fungi─thrives in wet conditions. I’ve tried homasote board and newspaper in the past, but nothing seems to work so well as a box of wood shavings above the inner cover. I tack a piece of burlap to the bottom of a medium box, and add several inches of wood shavings─you can even use the same type of pine bedding you might use for livestock (but not shavings that have actually been used by livestock! yuck!).

I also like to ensure my hives have both lower and upper entrances, in case the snow should cover the lower one. I make it a habit to check the apiaries periodically throughout the winter, and I’ll shovel out the front of hives just so the girls can take cleansing flights, or to ensure air-flow, but I prefer to allow the snow to pile up around the back and sides to protect the bees from the wind and cold to some degree.

“Geez, Sam…”

It’s certainly disappointing to not have honey available for my loyal customers at the farmers’ market. Not everyone understands why I chose not to take honey from the bees this year. Some folks look at me and say: Geez, that Sam─she’s been doing this for years now and she still can’t give me honey when I want it!

And I can’t deny the truth in that.

Beekeeping is probably the hardest form of agriculture. It is not easy to keep a colonies of bees alive in today’s modern era where poisonous pesticides have infected the landscape and the changing climate is altering our world on a very basic level. Even if you do everything “right”: you feed them, manage them in a timely fashion, perform mite treatments and leave honey for the winter─you’re still at the mercy of the natural world around you. You might face drought conditions, floods, bear-attacks, or extreme temperatures; the list of what could go wrong─all of which is out of your control─is fairly extensive.

As the beekeeper and a caring, nurturing farmer, I have to be the one to say to those folks, “I’m sorry, but I need to give my bees every chance for survival that I can give them. The bees need to be super-healthy in order to cope with the pesticides and mite-infestations, and they’re healthiest when they’re eating honey and plenty of it.”

maine nucleus colonies_2018
The nucleus colonies at Runamuk Acres, New Portland, Maine.

What’s more, it takes honey to build colonies, and I built a lot of new colonies this year with an eye toward the future. 15 of the 27 hives going into winter are nucleus colonies housing my Maine-raised Queens; I’m really proud of the state of the apiary, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t able to sell honey. Afterall, no one gets into farming to get rich; and certainly no one gets into beekeeping if they’re not bat-shit crazy about bees (it’s called: “passionate” thanks!). No, I’ve evolved enough that there’s really only one reason I do anything anymore: I’m doing it for love. Love of the land, love for nature─and love for bees.

Thanks for following along with my farming journey!!! You can support bee-friendly farming simply by buying our products; check out our online farm-store to get yourself something nice today! Subscribe by email or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes peeks into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine farm! 

State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

Beekeeping in today’s modern environment is probably one of the hardest forms of agriculture that exists. If you can think of a worse one, by all means leave a comment below to share with us lol. Meanwhile, the 2017-2018 winter was another rough winter for beekeepers here in Maine; many beekeepers lost a lot of hives─myself included. At first, with so much riding on the apiary I was afraid to tell anyone, but the fallout from those losses has not been as bad as I had feared and so I bring to you now a sort of “State of the Apiary Address”.

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

Over the course of the winter this year I went from 21 hives to 1. After working so diligently to build my apiary last summer it was a huge disappointment that led me once again to question myself, my abilities, and my path as a farmer. What’s more, with my impending mortgage largely dependent on the success of my apiary, I was terrified that the losses would put an end to my farm-purchase. Both Runamuk and my family desperately need a home to call their own; my days as a landless-farmer have run their course and it is now taking a toll on us all. What would happen if the FSA knew I’d lost 20 hives?

I wasn’t the only one who experienced significant hive-losses, however. The brutal cold Maine experienced in late-December and early-January tested even the strongest hives and beekeepers across the state suffered losses.

Note: For more about the impact of the 2017-2018 winter on Maine bees, check out “It’s been a rough winter for bees” from the Bangor Daily News, written by Peter Cowin─Maine’s own “Bee-Whisperer”.

Telling the FSA

Word of the impacts of the winter on the beekeeping industry eventually reached the USDA and FSA offices and I got an email from Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent who has been handling my loan, asking how I’d made out.

Honestly, there was a moment of utter panic. I was so terrified that if I told him the truth I would lose my chance to buy a farm and secure a home for my family. But I’ve made honesty and transparency a policy in my life, and not telling Nathan the truth was not something I wanted on my conscience─though I admit it totally crossed my mind.

If I’m going to have a relationship with the people at the FSA for the foreseeable future, I want that relationship to be a good one. So far the people I’ve worked with at the government office have only ever tried to help me. They have these resources available to help farmers and they want to do just that─help farmers; even if they are required to abide by the regulations and stipulations mandated by our bureaucratic government.

Besides that─if other beekeepers were sharing stories of loss and I came out with none, how would that look?

When I initially submitted my application and business plan to the FSA back in September, I had included for them a brief report on the nature of beekeeping. It is not common for a farmer to specialize in bees, and I wanted to help educate the FSA staff so that they would understand how a beekeeper can grow their apiary fairly rapidly just by making splits and nucs, and by raising their own Queens, which I am learning to do. I wanted the USDA representatives handling my case to realize that-yes, annual mortality of hives may be high─between 30% and 37% depending on the statistic─but the nature of beekeeping allows savvy beekeepers to rebound from annual losses and still continue to have hives and grow a business.

Once the shock regarding the severity of Runamuk’s winter losses wore off I had devised a plan to recover the apiary. I ordered a combination of packages for honey production, nucleaus colonies for kick-starting my breeding operation, and a dozen Saskatraz queens (Bred in Saskatchewan!!! Should be hardy in Maine, right?). And I still intended to produce at least 20 viable Queens to overwinter as nucleus colonies.

Even with this strategy under my cap, and knowing that I had good people on my side at the FSA, and even knowing that those people had accepted the education I’d offered and had even taken it upon themselves to learn more so as to be best able to help me─I had to have supplemental encouragement from some good friends before I could respond to Nathan’s email about my winter-losses.

I admitted that I was down to 1 hive, and presented my plan for recovery. My heart was in my throat when I hit the send button on that email, and I awaited Nathan’s response in a state of hyper-anxiety─fearing the worst.

Lol, I needn’t have worried. Nathan accepted the facts and was confident that with my strategy the Runamuk apiary would recover and go on to meet the goals I’d projected in my business financials. He merely suggested that I apply for the ELAP program for reimbursement of those hive-losses.

The ELAP Program

usda_somerset county
USDA Service Center for Somerset County, located in Skowhegan, Maine.

The ELAP program─or “Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish”─provides emergency assistance to eligible producers for losses due to disease, weather, and wildfire. It turns out that the severe and prolonged cold spell Maine experienced in December and January qualified beekeepers for reimbursement of hives lost as a result.

So I went to see Scott Speck at the Somerset County USDA office, who is the County Executive Director. At this point I’d met everyone in the office but Scott, so now I am fully acquainted with my local USDA/FSA staff─yaaay! Scott gave me the details on the program, we filled out the application and he sent me off with some homework.

Note: For more information on the ELAP program, check out the USDA’s ELAP Fact Sheet.

To qualify for the ELAP assistance I needed to be able to show some record of the existence of said hives─which was easy to do since Nathan had documented and photographed those same hives last fall for the purpose of my farm-loan. But I also needed to have my hives inspected by the Maine State Apiarist: Jennifer Lund, to ensure that “Best Management Practices” had been followed and that the cause of death was actually due to the severe weather conditions.

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

In my nearly 10 years keeping bees I had never once had the state apiarist come to my apiary. Thanks to my volunteer work as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers (formerly), I was involved enough to know what sort of issues were facing the majority of  Maine’s beekeeping community. Any additional problems I encountered I’ve been able to turn to a variety of more experienced beekeepers with whom I am acquainted, so having the state apiarist come solve my problems was never really necessary.

Again I was filled with anxiety─I knew I’d been following the “Best Management Practices” as laid out by the Maine Department of Agriculture, but what if I’d missed something? What if my timing had been off in applying the oxalic acid? Maybe I should have treated just one more time? I didn’t think I’d taken too much honey from the hives, but what if I was wrong? And what if Nathan had suggested the ELAP program as a justifiable means of having my operation assessed before the FSA committed the funds to my farm purchase???

I needn’t have worried; everything turned out fine.

Jennifer Lund met me at the Runamuk apiary located at Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks on a dreary grey day and we proceeded to go through the dead-outs on-site there. Jennifer is probably about my age; she studied at the University of Maine alongside Frank Drummond─one of the leading scientists performing research on native bee populations for the USDA. When Maine’s veteran State Apiarist, Tony Jadczak retired a couple years back, Jennifer applied for the job and got it.

Since she’d been awarded the position I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out why her name rang a bell in my head. We chatted as we surveyed my deceased colonies, and it turned out I had invited Jennifer to come to speak to the Somerset Beekeepers years ago! Mystery solved!

Jennifer checked my dead-outs to see the size of the cluster and their position within the hive, the amount of honey and pollen stores in the hives, along with signs of disease and mite levels among the population of bees. An alcohol-wash sampling revealed that mite levels were within reasonable range, and Jennifer concluded that in a normal winter even the weaker of my colonies likely would have survived. Cause of death was attributed to the weather conditions we’d experienced this year, and I was validated as a beekeeper.

With so many losses each winter it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it right, and whether it’s worth the hassle and heartache. Jennifer put my mind at ease, and my ELAP application is moving forward at the FSA. I should receive a check towards the end of the season, which I intend to use to reimburse myself for some of the replacement bees I purchased this spring.

It’s Bee Season!

back of a beekeeper's car
Some of my favorite days are when the back of my car looks like this!

The season is well underway now. Runamuk’s replacement bees came in several waves: I picked up the first 5 packages on May 12th from Peter Cowin in Hampden, then went back on the 29th for another 5 packages. These will be my honey-producing hives, since the southern bred Italian packages tend to rev up fairly quickly they will ensure that I have honey available to sell and enable me to meet my financial targets.

On June 8th I fetched 3 nucleus colonies from Bob Egan’s Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, Maine. I’d had 5 on order with Bob, but as a result of the harsh winter Bob was low on numbers. Having suffered significant losses myself I couldn’t hold that against the veteran beekeeper─we’re all in this together really. Bob raises a gentle strain of Carnolian bees that I’ve always had good luck with, and whose genetics I want as part of my breeding stock.

The 12 Saskatraz Queens are coming again from Hampden and Peter Cowin. They’ll be mated and ready to start laying when I bring them home the first week of July; the plan is to pair each Queen with 1 frame of brood taken from the existing hives and place them in a nucleus box with 1 frame of empty comb, and at least 1 frame of honey/pollen stores.

I’ll have to manage them fairly fastidiously so that I can overwinter them as nucs, so I’ve delayed pick-up of the new Queens til I can set them up at the new farm where I’ll be able to check on them more frequently. Ultimately, I’d like to have all the nucs and Queen-production happening at the Hive-House, while honey production will continue to happen at Hyl-Tun Farm where the Runamuk hives have miles of prime bee-forage in every direction.

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

The end-goal I have for the Runamuk Apiary is to make the operation sustainable for the long-term viability of my farm. Though I have supporting ventures diversifying Runamuk, bees are the main focus of my farm-business and to truly be successful over the upcoming years I need to reduce inputs and expenses while continuing to expand the apiary.

To do that I need to be able to raise my own Queens and overwinter them as nucleus colonies that can replace the inevitable annual losses. Once I can ensure the continued survival of my own apiary, I can start selling nucs and mated-Queens raised from hardy Maine stock to local beekeepers.

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

When I look back on the journey of my life I can’t help but marvel at the path that’s led me to this place in time. I did not set out to be the person I am today: female farmer, lady beekeeper, blogger, local food activist… I did see myself as becoming some sort of environmental activist however, and really everything I am stems from my love for the Earth and nature.

That love, along with a more recent commitment to be true to who I am and owning my story, has brought me here─doing work I love to do and paying my bills that way, on the precipice of purchasing my very own #foreverfarm and looking forward to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation farm to life.

Yes, beekeeping is hard, and I’ll never be well-off as a farmer, but when I open a hive and the fragrance of warm beeswax and honey washes over me─or when I’m on my knees in the garden surrounded by plants and insects under the bright sun─I am filled with gratitude that I am able to live a life I love─one which brings meaning and purpose to my existence. Now that I’ve tasted this kind of wholehearted living, I could never give it up.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to share any thoughts, questions or comments below!

Runamuk’s 2017 Year’s End Review: Part 1

banjo!

Here we are at another year’s end. This always seems to be an introspective time for me. A time for reflection and review, for letting go of what no longer serves us and for embracing new things into our lives. Before we move on to 2018 and all that a new year brings with it, I’d like to take a moment to review 2017 at Runamuk: what worked and what did not─in hopes that this information helps some other beginning farmer steer his or her own course along the rutted and bumpy dirt road to earning an income from farming.

This year I’ve broken the annual review up into 2 parts to make it easier for readers to digest. This first post is about some of the more personal aspects of farming, while the second post is focused solely on the business side of my operation. It’s scary to share my personal struggles with the world. Yet I feel it’s important to share these things with readers because the issues and events this farmer faces as a person─as a farmer and a mom─have significant impact on the choices I make in the management of Runamuk.

On a Personal Level

at the orchard
Marie (my sister), myself, and my younger son BraeTek at North Star Orchard this fall.

I’m going to be frighteningly honest and admit that this year was really tough for me on a personal level. When I made the decision in 2016 to let go of the farm in Starks I was faced with the prospect of moving my entire operation and my family─not for the first time. Not even for the second or third time, I’m embarrassed to admit. I was pretty morose and even a little angry with the Universe about having to give up that property. Now I see that it was the right thing to do; the right thing for the Murphy family and the right thing for that particular farm. The type of operation I want to have was not best suited to that piece of land. That piece of land needs grazing livestock, a farmer who can afford miles of fencing and a new tractor for haying. That’s not me.

These last 18 months have been difficult though. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my crusade and the toll it has taken on my children, my family, and the people around me.

Housing

I’m a single mother working part-time at Johnny’s while at the same time committed to working full-time on my farm. I just could not afford the cost of a rental by myself. What’s more, finding a landlord who will allow homesteading or farming on their property is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

hoop-coop noreaster
As a landless farmer I’ve learned a few tricks that allow me to quickly establish facilities at new locations─like my hoop-coop! This thing withstood last year’s winter with flying colors, and is now facing it’s second winter still standing!

Paul suggested I take up residence at his place in Norridgewock. Initially I balked at the idea, concerned about the tight living conditions my family would be under in the remodeled old trailer. However there really were few options and the low overhead  at Paul’s place has allowed me to gain ground financially. That financial traction was instrumental in my success in gaining the loan approval with the FSA to purchase the Swinging Bridge Farm. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Paul Smith, who has followed Runamuk’s progress since it was young, and has now helped make farm-ownership possible for me.

with william at woh_nutcracker
William and I at the Waterville Opera House.

Yet it’s been really hard for me to live at 26 Goodine’s Way. The trailer is unfinished and cold all winter even with a woodstove to take the chill off. Runamuk is crammed in around us so that I can continue to make soap and salves to keep my farm moving forward, leaving no space for family or friends to congregate. Norridgewock is also outside the district where my children attend school so I spent a lot of time shuttling kids back and forth when I should have been in the field farming.

I struggled during the winter and early spring, sorting through my guilt and anxiety regarding the choices I’d made that had brought me to that precipice. As someone who has struggled with depression in the past, I made it a point this year to practice positive thinking and gratitude, being thankful for what I do have and making the most of the here and now. I took extra special care of myself this year.

Embracing Music

banjo!
After restringing my banjo for the 1st time ever!

I got a banjo! I’ve always loved banjo music and have long aspired to play. I couldn’t justify spending money on a musical instrument while I was so focused on building Runamuk’s finances. Instead I posted to facebook offering a trade of honey, soap, salves, eggs─basically anything of value that I had on hand─for a used banjo. I was totally blown away when within 5 minutes of posting someone had offered to hook me up.

Paul Gallione (another Paul, lol!) is a commercial sales representative at Johnny’s Selected Seeds and he brought me his old banjo which had reportedly been living under his bed for the last 20 years. It came complete with a hard case, picks, spare strings and even some sheet music! What a guy!

ken the banjo instructor
My friend Ken! Lots of love for the Hahn family!

Having never played any instrument before it’s been a slow process to learn to use my newly acquired banjo. I’ve been inducted into lessons with my friend Ken Hahn, and I can now play a couple of songs without feeling like I’m torturing anyone within earshot. I’m really enjoying it too. I find playing music distracting, soothing and relaxing to play, and I would recommend taking up an instrument to anyone as a form of stress-relief and self-expression.  Afterall, music is food for the soul.

Time for Communing With Nature

the bigelows_2017
The view from the top of Little Bigelow: simply breathtaking!

with william at borestone
My attempt to get a picture with my 14yo son, who is now apparently too old for selfies with mom.

I feel really good too about doing a lot of hiking this year. I’ve been hiking Maine’s forests and mountains since I was a teenager and have always had an affinity for the high peaks. It’s where I go to reconnect with myself─and to reconnect with my Earth Mother. This year I climbed Bald Mountain in Rangeley, Pleasant Pond Mountain in Caratunk, and Little Bigelow Mountain in Lexington, as well as hiking the Fox Pen Trail with my boys at the Borestone Mountain Audubon Sancturay in Elliotsville.

A Few Good Friends

Through my work at Johnny’s and within the community, I’ve finally found my tribe─people like me (ok, maybe not quite like me lol), who want to eat real food from sources they know and trust, who want to preserve the Earth for future generations, and who value friendship, family, community and camaraderie. Many of my friends also play music, and I find myself surrounded by good friends, good food, and good music on a regular basis. I spent a lot of time with some very good friends this year.

maine maple sunday at jss
This is my friend Rebecca with me at Johnny’s! Weekends are a good time for shenanigans in the office!

Biggest Lessons Learned (as a Person)

I was almost ready to throw in the towel this spring. I gave serious consideration to whether or not I should continue to farm at all─being a simple homesteader would be so much easier and much less stressful. Paul is kind and thoughtful, eager to be a part of everything Runamuk; he would have liked nothing better than for me to settle with him and farm his sandy, bramble and oak forest; it would have been easy to say “Yes, let’s make a go of it”.

However, following my divorce I’ve come to realize I’m just not comfortable building my relationships on the need for land to farm on. It doesn’t feel good to me. That revelation─in combination with the affects of tight living conditions’ on my family, and the persistent vision I have for Runamuk─ultimately drove me to renew my campaign for a forever-farm, and led to the impending purchase of the Swinging Bridge Farm.

Here are 3 big things I learned in 2017:

  1. It’s all in the attitude.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Keep moving forward.

Life is What You Make of it

pkg pick up of new bees
Here I am with my packaged bees─in the car!

2017 was a monumentous year for me. Not just because I’m finally buying a farm, but because of the attitude I kept even in the face of failure. Sometimes life just happens, but sometimes life is what you make of it. I believe that by focusing on love and living wholeheartedly in the present I was able to rise above, I was able to continue farming even as a landless farmer, with my friends and the support of my community to spur me on. With every cell of my body I am humbled and grateful. Thanks be to the Universe and whatever gods may be.

Check back soon to read Part 2 of my Year-End Review, where I will discuss the business end of Runamuk and the ups and downs my operation faced in 2018! Thanks for following along with my story! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest posts from Runamuk directly in your in-box, and stay tuned for our continuing saga in 2018! In which Runamuk moves to the Swinging Bridge Farm!

years end review 2017

Shortest Day; Longest Night

winter solstice 2017

The Earth’s orbit around the sun has brought us once more to this─the shortest day and the longest night─the Winter Solstice. For all of Earth’s creatures, nothing is so fundamental as the length of daylight. It drives warmth, weather, and life itself on our planet.

Today we know that the solstice is an astronomical occurrence, caused by the Earth’s tilt on its axis, and its motion in orbit around the sun. It is this tilt that causes winter and summer, and at the December solstice the northern hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun, so we experience a late sunrise and an early sunset. The shortest day and longest night.

The Winter Solstice has been celebrated in cultures around the world for thousands of years. It is the start of the solar new year, a celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun. In old Europe, the festival was known as Yule, from the Norse word “jul”, meaning wheel, and the celebration lasted.

To tell you the truth, observing ancient holidays has been instrumental in my growth─both as an individual and as a farmer. Learning to revel in the changing of the seasons, to celebrate the Wheel of the Year─has allowed me a heightened awareness of the natural processes happening all around me. What began as a way to avoid a disgustingly over-commercialized holiday, has led me to a deeper spiritual connection to the Earth.

The Winter Solstice offers us a bright new start, filled with new hope and possibilities. With love and family, steeped in tradition, the Winter Solstice rejoices in the returning of light to the land. It only makes sense that those messages should resonate with a farmer such as I.

My recent victory in obtaining the approval of the FSA on my loan request has given me special cause to celebrate this year. After 8 years working toward this goal, building up my operation year after year, overcoming the set backs and failures to arrive at this point, the joy I feel is exquisite, and I am savoring it completely.

Runamuk’s community of supporters have rejoiced with me. Friends, family, market patrons, colleagues and community members all say “Congratulations, Sam!” From the closest of close friends, to acquaintances I scarcely know, the elation they all feel after following this story for so very long is sweet and wonderful. They are all part of Runamuk, for they have been there through it all, and I am so glad to share it with them. There’s enough joy to go around lol.

winter solstice 2017Last night I burned my very own beeswax candles as the long dark descended. It was symbolic─representing the spark of life that lingers on even in the darkest hours, even in the longest of nights. It lays dormant, waiting, ready to return when the time is right.

We are all like that light. Or at least we can be─if we so choose. There’s a spark in all of us that can illuminate the path we are destined to take. That spark can bring light and love into your life, fill you up and spill over onto the people around you. It’s infectious. I’ve seen first hand how learning to love oneself, and being true to the real you can fill your life with abundance and joy, creating a ripple effect throughout your entire community. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. What a gift to give!

I’m so glad you’re here to participate in Runamuk’s story! In a couple of months we’ll close on the purchase of the Swinging Bridge Farm and the #GreatFarmMove #theFinalChapter is penciled on the calendar for the end of April. All that’s happened so far on our journey was only the Prologue in an epic tale; new adventures await on the horizon! Be sure to subscribe by email so that you never miss an update!

Happy Holidays from all of us here at Runamuk Acres!

Approved!

swinging bridge farm

Yesterday I received the news I have worked long and hard for. Nathan contacted me from Maine’s Pensobscot County Farm Service Agency to say that my loan request was approved by the state’s Farm Loan Manager. I can scarcely believe it!

Honestly I hadn’t expected to hear anything until later next week, so it came as quite a surprise when the email came through with the Notification of Loan Approval attached. I had to read Nathan’s words twice through, not daring to believe it at first lest I’d read it wrong, and even then I had to open the file and read the document entirely before I could accept that it was really real: my loan request has been approved! I’m buying the Swinging Bridge Farm!

At first I was so stunned that I was shaking. I couldn’t sit down, I had to stand up. I hugged Paul repeatedly, danced with Murphy, and bounced up and down; I was laughing and crying at the same time. After years of working toward this goal─to buy a property that would serve as my forever-farm home and become the pollinator conservation farm that I have envisioned since I began working with bees nearly 8 years ago─all of the struggle has finally been rewarded. I’m buying a farm!!!

Indeed, the FSA’s monstrous loan application and drawn out process has felt very much akin to a college final exam, upon which my degree depends upon. I did not attend college and am largely self-taught, but I feel I’ve earned that degree─or the equivalent of it─in the form of this loan approval. Did I mention I’m buying a farm???

We won’t actually close on the purchase for months, however. The FSA’s grueling process dictates that an appraisal of the property be done by an outside operative, which means the government offers the job to real estate appraisors across the state. The appraisors have something like 45 days to bid on the job, and once someone has been selected that person then has another 3 weeks or so to get the job done and turn in their report to the FSA.

They do this to ensure that the government isn’t paying too much for the property. The FSA won’t pay more than the value of the property, as these loans are funded with tax-payer money. This could mean that I might have to re-negotiate with the Seller if the FSA’s appraisal comes in lower than our current Sale Agreement, and that can sometimes be a sticking point. However, I’m fairly confident that I’m getting the Swinging Bridge Farm for a good price, and if the appraisal should come in lower than the $174,500 I’ve committed to, I have faith that the Seller will work with me to make my dream of farm-ownership come true.

In addition to the appraisal I need to have a number of inspections done on the house, including the chimney, electrical, plumbing and septic, and a water test. These I’ll have to pay for out of my own pocket before closing, but it makes good sense to have these things looked at to ensure the safety of not only my business, but my family as well.

swinging bridge farmTitle research needs to be done, and I need to have insurance in place before closing too. I’m pleased as punch that Ernie Hilton has agreed to do the legal work on this for me. Ernie and Gwen Hilton have supported my ambitions with Runamuk for years. My most valuable apiary is located on their farm in Starks, where bee-forage is prime and allows me to produce high quality honey. More recently the Hiltons hosted my FarmRaiser party in their historic barn. It seems fitting that Ernie should be the one to help me seal the deal on this farm-purchase.

We’re probably looking at closing (I’m estimating based on the information I’ve gleaned from Nathan during this whole process) in the late winter or early spring. I’m going to wager that it will be sometime around the Vernal Equinox─the first day of spring: March 20th. After that I’ll hold off on the “Great Farm Move: the Final Chapter” until after mud season. The house at the Swinging Bridge Farm is coming to me fully furnished, so I’ll use the time in between to organize the place, sort through the existing “stuff”, and define spaces and work stations within the house, the attached shed and barn, for Runamuk and for my family.

But there’s also the chance that we may not close til June. It all depends how how smoothly things progress. Whatever the wait, I know I have something to look forward to at the end of this road.

After living in tight quarters for the last year, with a full-sized bed in what should be the family room, my 2 boys sharing a room, and Runamuk crammed in around us─it will be a huge blessing, and a big advantage to have designated spaces once again. While I support the concept of tiny-homes, with my operation requiring accommodations for various oils, soap curing, product packaging, honey storage, farmers’ market supplies and writing materials─it’s challenging to fit it into a small space and coexist. My boys will value having their own rooms once more, and Runamuk will have the space it requires to thrive and grow.

OMG I’m buying a farm!!!

Join me in offering thanks to the Universe; new beginnings are on the horizon! Subscribe by email to the Runamuk blog for the latest updates on my farming-journey directly in your in-box!

FSA Farm Loan Update: Complete Application!

It’s been 54 days today since I dropped off the bulk of my FSA farm loan application with the Somerset County branch of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Surprisingly enough, things continue to progress in the direction of ownership of the Swinging Bridge Farm for Runamuk.

sbf the house
The Swinging Bridge Farm was constructed in 1880 and sits on 150 acres in New Portland, Maine!

The Story So Far:

At first I was afraid to hope. I was afraid to imagine myself at that picture-book little farm for fear I would once again come up short. I gave considerable thought to what I will do if the FSA does not approve my loan request. After struggling for years to gain ground with bees and farming I contemplated whether the hardships and sacrifices are truly worth it. I thought long and hard about my life’s ambitions, my needs and the needs of my children.

Introducing Nathan at the Penobscot County FSA!

Due to the volume of applications currently under review at the Somerset branch, my file was sent to the Penobscot County office. There it is being handled by Nathan Persinger who is new to Maine and it’s burgeoning small farm movement. Originally Nathan hails from Kansas (if I remember correctly), where he worked primarily with large-scale farmers growing commodity crops. Nathan has been excellent to work with. He’s been polite and respectful, has kept me in the loop, further explaining the intricacies of the FSA’s process as we go. He’s really been an advocate for me and my farm operation.

It wasn’t until Nathan told me that my business plan was the best he’d ever seen that I began to allow myself to believe that this might all work out. He said that he believed in my project and  he was going to do everything he could to help me get my farm. Still it was hard to fathom success after so many failures.

Then Nathan sent along his Farm Assessment for me to review. This is a narrative of sorts, developed by the FSA agent handling the case, which accompanies my loan application to the State Office. I read the part at the end about how he is recommending my plan for approval and my heart just soared!

It’s not mine yet.

fsa farm loan update
Counting the days til she’s mine!

Remember, we’re still at the regional level. The entire application with the encyclopedia of supporting documentation has yet to go to the State Office for intense scrutiny. The whole thing reminds me somewhat of high school sports lol. You compete on different levels to win the State Championship for title and trophy: first the team competes on a local level, then  regionally, and finally─if you’ve practiced long and hard, and if you’re good enough, determined enough─you compete at the State Championship for the win. Thankfully this is not the Superbowl and I don’t need to go on to a National level.

Before my application can go on to the State Office, there is an environmental assessment and an appraisal of the prospective farm property that need to be done. The FSA performs an environmental assessment largely to ensure that the proposed farming operation will not cause a threat to the surrounding environment. Nathan has to go to the Swinging Bridge Farm and perform an inspection so that he can write up a report. The appraisal is done to ensure that the government is not paying more than what the property is actually worth.

Note: Check out this pdf provided by the USDA to read more about the FSA’s Environmental Compliance requirements, and this one to learn about the whys and hows of the FSA’s Real Estate Appraisal.

The Swinging Bridge Farm Gets Registered With the USDA

In order for the Environmental Assessment to be done, the Swinging Bridge Farm first had to be listed with the USDA. This designates the property boundaries, the types of agriculture happening there, and makes the property eligible to receive services from not only the USDA and the FSA, but also the NRCS.

If you’re a beginning farmer and you’re lucky enough to own your own property, or even if you’re managing property for someone else, it’s worth it to go down to your county USDA office to register your farm and learn what programs your land might be able to take advantage of. It’s a very simple process and the folks at the USDA office are super nice. I’ve done it twice before: once for the land I owned with my ex-husband, and then as farm manager for Jim Murphy’s farm in Starks.

3 Cheers for Mrs. Fletcher!

Let me take this moment to recognize Mrs. Fletcher, the 70-something year old woman who inherited the responsibility of caring for the Swinging Bridge Farm when her husband passed away a few years back. She had multiple offers for the property and did not have to accept mine. We are strangers who have never even met; for all intents and purposes, we live in different worlds. She was under no obligation to work with this wayward farmer from backwoods Maine on a sale that could take the better part of a year at worst, and 5 or 6 months at best to close.  But something about my story, my plans for a pollinator conservation farm, or my passion for taking care of the land struck a chord within her.

Whatever her reasons, I am overflowing with gratitude. None of this would be even remotely possible if we did not have that Sale Contract.

Mrs. Fletcher made up her mind that day on September 14th and she has not wavered since. If the FSA requests documentation from her she is quick to provide, and so this elderly lady took herself half an hour from her home in Kennebunk, to the Scarborough branch of the USDA and registered the Swinging Bridge Farm with the government. It looks like the Environmental Assessment will be scheduled for the week following Thanksgiving, which is good because once we have snow on the ground they can’t do the assessment until next spring, according to Nathan.

A Complete Application

I received word 13 days ago of my Complete FSA Farm Loan Application (officially), though I’m still waiting for my Letter of Eligibility. Nathan has really been pushing my case through, and progress is being made, so I am happy to wait patiently. The pieces continue to line up and where there once was no hope at all, there is now the glimmer of promise. I have allowed myself the pleasure of dreaming, and rather than worrying “What if it doesn’t work out?”, I am instead saying “What if it does???”

Once Nathan has my Letter of Eligibility done, the Environmental Assessment and the Appraisal completed, I believe my application can finally go off to the State Office. There my business plan and my financials will be reviewed and funding will either be approved or denied based on the financial feasibility of it all.

In my mind there is a flurry of questions and concerns. Where is the State Office? Who will be working on my case? Will they agree with Nathan regarding the feasibility of my painstakingly crafted farm-plan? Have I put in enough work? Did I do enough? Am I enough? Is it my turn?

We shall see… Stay tuned!

Holiday Gift Baskets from Runamuk

runamuk raw honey

Brighten someone’s day with a gift basket from Runamuk Acres! With raw honey, beeswax soaps and wildcrafted herbal salves, our baskets are unique and useful even beyond the holiday season. Healthful and practical, all natural and bee-friendly, just about anyone would be happy to be blessed with such a gift. It’s a great way to show someone you care.

I fully admit this is a shameless plug for Runamuk’s fine products lol. Afterall, I’ve worked hard to learn these skills, to develop my own methods and recipes. As a farmer and beekeeper I’m damned proud of Runamuk’s products. If you’re going to be buying gifts for family and friends anyway, definitely consider raw honey and beeswax products from Runamuk Acres, a bee-friendly farm and apiary in central Maine.

gift baskets availableIf you haven’t visited the Runamuk Farm-Store definitely stop by to see the listing of products currently available from our farm and apiary. We’ve recently updated the shopping cart so that it functions more efficiently, and the shipping charges are priced so as to make it more affordable for out-of-state customers.

Orders can be placed online for local pick-up too: pick up orders at the Madison Farmers’ Market, OR coordinate with us for delivery to another mutually-convenient time/location.

Runamuk’s Apiary Products

runamuk raw honey
The lighter honey on the left is the spring crop, and the darker honey on the right was harvested in the fall.

Raw Honey: We have raw honey available in pint-sized (1.4lbs) mason jars, with a choice between the spring and the fall honey. The spring honey is light-colored with a sweeter flavor, while the fall honey is darker in color due to the types of flowers the bees feed on at that time of the year. The fall honey also has a more robust flavor and it’s higher in antioxidants─a boon going into the winter cold and flu season.

Beeswax Soaps: Runamuk’s soaps are all made with a base recipe that includes plant-based oils and fats, as well as beeswax and honey. These are long-lasting bars that lather well even in hard water. We have a variety of mainstay soaps, along with seasonal-fragrances available while supplies last.

Wildcrafted Herbal Salves: These are lotions, skin creams, balms, or liniments made with beeswax from our own hives. The medicinal plants are either foraged from the surrounding landscape, or harvested from Runamuk’s gardens, then dried and infused for 8 weeks in olive oil before being combined with the beeswax and packaged into recyclable aluminum tins.

Beeswax Wood Polish: By combining raw linseed oil with our own beeswax we’ve created a product that is completely natural. Beeswax is a superb protectant for wood furniture, kitchen utensils, or even leather. Runamuk offers the wood polish either unscented or lemongrass-scented in 4oz tins; larger sizes available by request.

Gift Baskets

Small Basket: $25 

  • 1 pint (1.4lbs) raw honey: your choice of the spring or fall varieties
  • 3 bars of beeswax soap: mix-and-match
  • 1 tin (1oz) herbal salve: your choice of any herbal salve (includes lipbalm) OR 1 tin wood polish: unscented or lemongrass-scented

Large Basket: $50

  • 1 pint (1.4lbs) Raw Honey each of the spring and fall varieties
  • 6 bars of Beeswax Soap: mix-and-match
  • 1 tin (1oz) Herbal Salve: your choice of any herbal salve (includes lipbalm)
  • 1 tin (4oz) Herbal Salve: your choice of any herbal salve
  • 1 tin (4oz) Wood Polish : unscented or lemongrass-scented

How to Place an Order with Runamuk

Central Maine residents can find Runamuk’s beeswax soaps and herbal salves at North Star Orchards in Madison, and in Skowhegan at Ginny’s Natural Foods right on the rotary downtown.

To purchase directly from the farm we are available at the Madison Farmers’ Market right up until just before Christmas. We can take pre-orders in person, by email, phone, text, or even social media.

Or place your order online through our farm-store and we can ship it to the desired destination. We’re currently offering a $4 flat rate shipping charge on any order over $25, and FREE shipping on orders over $50.

Be present

I’d also like to take this opportunity to remind us all that the holidays are not about the gifts and the tinsel. It’s about taking the time to show the people in our lives that we care, and if you can do no more this year for those you hold dear than to show up and be present, then I encourage you to do so wholeheartedly. Be present. Be light and love for those around you and they will remember and thank you for it.

Happy Holidays to you and yours from all of us at Runamuk!