12 Tips for Wannabe-Farmers

rotational grazing sheep and chickens

Recently, I received a request for tips for wannabe-farmers. What advice might I have to offer those who are brand-new to agriculture and are just beginning their farm-journey? It came to me through Instagram, a brand-new farmer messaged to say that she’d recently made up her mind to farm. She told me that I’d inspired her (me!), and did I have any tips to offer a new farmer? If you’re in the same situation─new to farming and not sure where to start or which way to go─then keep reading, my friend, this post is for you!

tips for wannabe farmers
Rotational grazing of sheep and chickens at Runamuk Acres.

If you’ve been following along with the Runamuk blog, you’re likely aware that I’ve been calling out wannabe-farmers. Farming is the ultimate form of social and environmental activism we can offer, and the world needs us to stand and take action. Not only is the average age of farmers on the rise, but thanks to industrial agriculture, there are fewer of them, and fewer new farmers following in their footsteps. What’s more, studies by the Rodale Institute have shown that regenerative organic agricultural practices have the potential to allow us to actually reverse global warming. The world needs farmers. And it needs us now.

#12: Start Now!

When it comes to agriculture, there’s a lot to learn, and it really does take a lifetime. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll achieve your goal. Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote often runs through my head: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There’s something you can be growing─right now─wherever you are. I’m sure of it.

Traditionally farms began as subsistence farms, feeding just the farm-family. It would take a number of years before the farm was established enough to feed it’s community. The USDA sites the average “middle-income” household spends $7,061 on food annually, and the “low-income” households are spending about $4, 070. So even if we’re only growing food for ourselves, we’re still saving ourselves a big chunk of money, and eating better as a result. I’m a firm believer that in order to save the world, we must first save ourselves. If you wannabe a farmer, start growing something today and feed your family first.

#11: Do Your Homework

It is entirely possible to be a farmer without a college degree. I did it, and so can you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study and learn all you can about agriculture, though. There’s so much to learn! Get your hands on as many books as you can and read them all. Take notes if that’s your thing (I still have bins and boxes filled with all of the composition journals filled with my scribbled notes from Runamuk’s early days). Go ahead and watch some YouTube, watch food documentaries, visit your local agricultural fairs and tour the exhibition halls to learn more about agriculture in your area. Take a Master Gardener course if your local cooperative extension offers one. Watch for other interesting workshops or events in your area where you might be able to learn new skills.

This is the time for planning your farm. This is the fun part. Brainstorm what your dream farm might be like. What are you passionate about growing? Are there particular types of livestock you’re interested in working with? What skills do you want to learn along the way? How might you market your products? Where will your farm live? Give your farm a name (oooooo─so exciting!). Don’t worry yet if you do not own land to farm upon─that is not the end of the road─merely an obstacle to be worked around in time.

how to get started farmingDo a SWOT analysis for yourself; I wrote about Conducting a SWOT Analysis of Your Farm and have provided an example with a SWOT Analysis of Runamuk. Naturally, these are farm-analyses, but you should do one for YOU. What are your personal Strengths and Weaknesses, and what do you see as potential Opportunities and Threats to your ambitions?

Remember, there are no wrong or stupid answers in brainstorming. Once you have all of these notes down on paper, it will be easier to see where your real passions and interests, strengths and opportunities lie. You can then make a rough plan for your future farm. I strongly recommend a good 5 year plan. Set goals for yourself and your farm; where would you like to be in 5 years? Don’t be afraid to reach, but also try to be reasonable with yourself─this is going to take a lot of work. Save all of your notes and plans for your records. Refer back to them annually to review your progress, and make adjustments to the plan as necessary.

#10:  Practice Your Social Skills

A great many─many─introverts are called to farming. I know, cause I am one of them. Entire farmers’ markets are made up of introverts, trust me! But I’ve practiced and practiced my social skills, and these other vendors have too; I’ve learned to be friendly and open with the people around me, and it has gotten easier over the years. Sometimes noisy or crowded situations can still be overwhelming. I’m still awkward, I’m sure, perpetually weird and overenthusiastic at times, but I’ve learned that I am not alone in my social awkwardness, and a friendly smile is a great ice breaker.

#9:  Get Involved.

how to be a farmer
I participated in a farmer talent show with friends in service of my local farmers’ market! That’s me in the red sweater!

Volunteering your time and energy is a great way for new farmers to gain experience, build a reputation in the community, and network with other people. Most any non-profit organization or local farm will eagerly accept volunteers. Be committed to your cause, work hard, and be reliable. This helps you build trust with your community, and grows your reputation in a positive way. You’ll get to know the people around you, and they will get to know you and your ambitions of farming. Sometimes these relationships can lead to exciting opportunities for the beginning farmer. The people in your community can also be useful resources that you might be able to turn to when you have a question or need some help. Get involved in your community, and develop and nurture these relationships through volunteer work.

#8:  Treat it Like a Business

Treat your farm like a business, because it is one. I always tell new farmers to file a “Schedule F” with their taxes as soon as they are grossing $500 annually from farm-sales. This is the IRS form that documents farm income to the government, and once you have a record of this income, you are officially considered to be farming on some level. This is what financial institutions are looking for when you apply for loans as a farmer, so this is an important document to have. And if you can show an increase in your net farm-income each year, that proves to the powers-that-be that your business is indeed growing.

You’ll also want to have an up-to-date resume, and a formal business plan (mine was a whopping 33 pages when I started! Before I could submit it to the FSA I had to condense it to 12). Your local business development center can help you with that.

If you don’t know already, learn how to use spreadsheets and actually use them to track your farm’s income and expenses. These annual cash-flow records are invaluable tools with potential investors and financial institutions. Always keep your receipts! Also keep production records: how many seeds sown and the yield they produced, crop rotations, fertilizing and pest treatments, etc.

#7:  Be Prepared to Make Sacrifices.

Imagine the pioneers who went West looking for a new life in a new land…they gave up the security and safety available in the East and traversed over 2,000 miles to reach their destination. Along the way they lost treasured possessions, family members─they sometimes arrived with little more than the clothes on their back after their long and perilous journey. Along your farm-journey, you may also have to give up security and safety, or forsake customary extravagances and conveniences. How far are you willing to go to achieve your goals?

tips for new farmers
To avoid the payment on a pick-up truck, I make-do with my Subaru. The seats fold forward, allowing me to haul a small load, or even livestock, if need be.

To be able to do the work of farming, you will likely need to make sacrifices somewhere along the way. You might decide to give up your newer model vehicle for a second-hand beater with no monthly payments. If you’re not already, you may consider buying yours and your family’s clothing at local thrift stores. Giving up cable or satellite TV services will usually save you in the neighborhood of $100 a month; likewise with expensive cell-phones. Maybe you’ll stop eating out, or give up extracurricular activities. Or, instead of buying that new living room set with your tax return, you could use that money to buy a tiller, or seeds and tools, etc. Runamuk has been funded over the years, in large part with my Earned Income Tax Credit. I’ve also lived in very poor conditions and suffered cold winters in poorly heated dwellings in order to free up money for my farming ambitions.

In the end, it’s all about priorities and how bad you really want it. As a new or beginning farmer, you’ll need those extra funds to invest in your business. You’ll need money to buy tools, seeds, livestock, fencing, permits, insurance─you name it. Unless you have some capital saved already, or are fortunate enough to have access to money, you’ll have to figure out how to make those investments. Be prepared to make sacrifices to make your farm-dream a reality.

#6:  Match the Land to it’s Suited Use.

Whether you’re leasing 1 acre for farming, borrowing space in your great-Aunt’s back-40, or you’re lucky enough to already own a small piece of Earth, you’ll want to match the land to it’s suited use. Do a SWOT analysis on the site.

  • Landscape: Is it all filled with brambles? or an open pasture with fairly good soil?
  • Water: Be it a pond, stream, or spigot, you’ll need access to water for pretty much any kind of farming you want to do.
  • Sun exposure: How much sun does the spot get daily and how does the changing of seasons affect that?
  • Weather conditions: Is the site open to driving winds? Will you experience winter snow and ice? Consider how different weather conditions might affect your farm-operation at that site.
  • Drainage: Is the site relatively dry all year? or does it get wet and mucky in the spring?
  • Existing infrastructure: Are there any existing structures or utilities (like access to water and electricity) that you will be able to make use of?
  • Soil conditions: Is it suitable for growing vegetables? or too rocky, and better instead for grazing livestock upon?
  • Plot size: How much space do you have to work with? Dictates how many carrots or sheep, etc. you can raise there.

All of these things will factor into what you can successfully grow at any given location.

#5:  Think Outside the Box.

tips for starting a farm
I’ve learned to build these alternative hoop-structures for everything from seedling houses to chicken coops. They allow me to do a lot without a big up-front investment. Just one example of this farmers’ creative resourcefulness.

It’s inevitable that you, the new farmer, will eventually meet with some kind of obstacle along your farming-journey. When this happens, do not despair. Instead, take this opportunity to get creative─think outside the box and come up with some kind of alternative work-around to your problem.

This is resiliency at it’s finest, my friends. There are so many ways to farm, so many ways to achieve the same end goal: farm ownership and serving your community as a farmer. Don’t let old-school concepts hold you back. Brainstorm ways around your problem─always remember there are no wrong answers in brainstorming! It’s merely a tool to generate ideas.

If you can’t come up with any ideas, research it to see what other people have done in your situation. Don’t be afraid to ask your peers and your community for input, either. You’ll be surprised by the number of people that want to see you succeed─they want you to be their farmer!

#4:  Watch for Opportunities.

tips for beginning to farm
At Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine, premium bee-forage abounds for miles around. The landowners invited me to site an apiary there because I was involved in my community, serving as president of the Somerset Beekeepers’ at the time.

Sometimes doors will open for you when you least expect it. In my own farm-journey, I’ve found that by always working hard, and by practicing kindness and gratitude, it fosters my relationships with neighbors and community-members. The relationships I’ve built through my volunteer work has led to many interesting opportunities for Runamuk: everything from donations of equipment and livestock, to access to land to farm upon.

That doesn’t mean you should say yes to every opportunity that presents itself─especially in the case of livestock. Only you know what is right for your farm-operation, and sometimes, even though they mean well, people are just trying to unload their own problem-animals. Try to make good business choices when opportunities present themselves.

#3: Practice Patience.

advice for beginning farmers
To gain experience, I found jobs within the local agricultural community, including North Star Orchards in Madison, ME. Here I am in one of their vast coolers!

Unless you have ready-access to farmland, or access to credit and capital to begin your farm with, it’s likely this is going to be a long-journey for you. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to be overcome to achieve your goals.

Accept that there will most certainly be failures. There will be bad days. Hard days. Days when you’re sick or sore─or both─and you’ll begin questioning yourself and why you even started this journey in the first place.

You’ll wonder if you’ll ever reach your destination. Be patient with yourself and with the journey. Remember it’s not about the destination. You’re already farming. You ARE a farmer.

#2:  “Don’t Overwork Yourself” (advice from the farmers’ son)

As I sat at the dinner table with my 12 yo son, BraeTek, I pondered what tips for wannabe-farmers I might have. It was a rainy September evening and we were eating one of BraeTek’s favorites: seafood chowder. I’d made it from scratch, with a variety of canned seafood, and my own potatoes, carrots, and onions, in a rich creamy broth. To go with it we had slathered in butter this artisan bread by Julia, from Crumb Again Bakery in Kingfield, which I’d traded vegetables for at farmers’ market last Friday. It was a wonderful meal to share at the table with my son, catch up on his school day, and just connect over good food.

Admittedly, I take great pride in the fact that my kids have been raised largely on my own homegrown and homemade food. After all, it was the desire to supplement our household food budget, as well as to provide fresh and organic food for my family, that steered me down this path in the first place. My 2 sons have been with me through every phase of my farm-journey, and they’ve seen first hand how hard I’ve worked.

Between the slurping of soup, I thoughtfully asked BraeTek, “If you were going to offer tips for new farmers, what would you tell them?”

At first he gave me the typical teenage-scoff, but I laughed that off and pressed him to give the question some thought. The answer he came back with was actually very good; BraeTek’s tip for wannabe farmers is:

Don’t overwork yourself.

He says, sometimes I complain at the end of the day that I am sore or exhausted from working on the farm all day. And he’s absolutely right, you know…as farmers, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. The farming-journey is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to make sure we’re taking time for ourselves, and saving enough of ourselves for our families too. It’s also important to ensure down time in order to avoid burn-out. What a smart kid!

#1: Don’t EVER Give Up.

runamuk acres conservation farm
I am living proof that dream do come true. Check out my farmhouse! If I can do it, you can do it too!!!

This is my number one tip for the wannabe-farmer. If you really and truly want this─if you have no reservations and you know, deep in your heart that you are called to farming, called to serve your community and your planet as farmer─then don’t you ever, ever give up. You will get there.

The path of each farmer will different from the next. It took very nearly 10 years to achieve my own goal of farm-ownership, but perhaps you will have yours and be underway within 3 months or 3 years. Even if it takes you 13 years! in the end, I promise you─so long as you don’t quit─you will eventually find yourself where you are meant to be, doing what you are meant to be doing. Farming.

Join the Revolution: Be the Change

me on the farm
Loving life on my new farm!

The USDA and the FSA consider a beginning farmer to be one in his or her first 10 years of their agricultural careers (but if you don’t have supporting documentation it doesn’t count!). Yours truly is officially graduating this year, from “beginning farmer” to “farmer”, and while I would not claim to be any kind of expert, I offer up these tips for wannabe-farmers from my own experience. My hope is that I can help other new and beginning farmers to have the courage to start down the path of their own farm-journeys.

The time has come for We the People to stand and take action. We can’t wait for our governments to make changes for us─we’ve waited more than 50 years already for environmental action. No, the time has come for We the People to stand up and be the change we want to see in the world. We have that power in our very own hands─we can be farmers, and we can farm using regenerative practices. We can save our children, affect climate change, and improve society─literally at the ground level. Join the revolution today. Be a farmer.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your inbox! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

12 tips for wannabe-farmers

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution; Review & Giveaway

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

What is No-Till?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Andrew Mefferd?

Click image to purchase with Amazon.

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

About the Book

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

My Opinion

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

The Climate Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Giveaway

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

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

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

Possibilities

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

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

 

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the organic no-till farming revolution_review and giveaway

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

soil is more than just dirt

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

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

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

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

1. Reduce tillage:

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

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

 

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

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

2. Keep the soil covered:

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

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

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

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

3. Maximize plant diversity:

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

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

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

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

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

4. Manage Nutrients:

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

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

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

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

Work With Nature

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

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

strategies for improving soil health

Cultivating Soil Health: Garden, Farm, or Homestead

cultivating soil health

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

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

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

Understanding Soil

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

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

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

Soil is Habitat

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

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

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

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

 Cultivating Soil Health

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

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

Working With Nature

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading

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

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

Soil Health Literature – via the Natural Resources Conservation Service

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

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

cultivating soil health

Why Female Farmers are a Big Deal

tender soles farm_kate delveccio_women farmers

Female farmers are a big deal these days─and I’m not just saying that because I am one. Women in agriculture are on the forefront of an important shift in today’s farming landscape. They’re reshaping the way we perceive farming, making an impact on the world around them─confronting adversity as female farmers every day─and in many cases, they’re doing it with kids in-tow. Personally, I think that’s downright amazing.

tender soles farm_kate delveccio_women farmers
Kate Delveccio introduces daughter, Samara, to one of their draft horses at Tender Soles Farm, in Richmond, Maine. Photo credit: Tender Soles Farm.

Women have always been there farming right alongside men, but because of our gender and status within society, we have predominately been excluded from the agricultural discourse. Women’s labors have been made invisible within the American society; we’ve been left out of books, art, and archives, our names kept off bank loans, land titles, business documents, and equipment purchases.

Thankfully the women’s rights movement has achieved great success over the past few decades, uplifting the voices of urban and suburban women and making great strides in breaking rigid roles and glass ceilings that once held them strictly to household and reproductive duties. Today, women’s contributions are increasingly being recognized, and more women are choosing to call themselves “farmer” in spite of the challenges and adversity that come with that title. Myself included.

1. Women on the Front-lines

green willow homestead_female farmers are a big deal
Kelsey Jorissen of Green Willow Homestead, in southeastern Wisconsin. Photo credit: Green Willow Homestead.

There is a paradigm shift taking place in the agriculture and food industries, and women are on the front-lines. The public is waking up to the dangers of processed foods and the agricultural system that produces them; increasingly people want to eat clean food made from real ingredients that were produced in a manner that does not harm the planet. Alternative agriculture continues to grow hand in hand with the local food movement, to the point that our perceptions of what constitutes farming are beginning to change as well. These shifts are creating new opportunities for women.

Temra Costa, author of “Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat” said:

Women make the food choices, they make the choices on what to feed their family, so their movement into farming is very natural.”

Since the dawning of civilization, women have been largely responsible for providing their families with food─not just because it’s a cultural expectation based upon our gender─but also because it’s one of the ways we care for our loved ones. Even in today’s modern era, women continue to do the majority of food-related work in their households: the shopping, processing, the cooking and the serving.

In many cases, food provision is essential to many women’s identities─it even gives them power within their household, and their community. Gardening to provide food for the family is a natural progression for women, and from there it is just a short jump to selling excess goods to your neighbors and community.

2. Overcoming Challenges

beaver vineyards women who farm
Tara, of Beaver Vineyards in Walnut Grove, California. Photo credit: Beaver Vineyards.

The biggest challenges facing any beginning farmer are access to credit, access to land, and education. Female farmers, however, must also be strong enough to overcome a hegemonic, patriarchal society, as well as the invisibilizing mythologic perception of agriculture, and the burden of a disproportionate division of household responsibilities.

It’s a lot to ask anyone to take on, but more and more women are pursuing careers in agriculture. Women have learned to think outside the box─seizing opportunities that might be overlooked or rejected by male farmers like: making use of smaller parcels of land, creating diverse operations that favor sustainable practices, and prioritizing food production over commodity crops.

Female farmers shatter the old stereotypes, and the public perception of farming is slowly changing. 40 years ago, rural women raising horses or selling agricultural products to friends and neighbors generally weren’t considered farmers. Now, according to the USDA’s 2012 Agricultural Census, approximately 60% of women farmers sold less than $5K in agricultural goods in the previous year. Yet these women are much more likely to call themselves farmers today, than they would have in 1978─as are their neighbors and government more likely to consider these women “farmers”.

3. With Kids in Tow!

good heart farmstead_female farmers are a big deal
Kate Spring cuts hay with a scythe while carrying her son on her back, at Good Heart Farmstead in Worcester, Vermont. Photo credit: Good Heart Farmstead.

If you ask me─the most important reason female farmers are such a big deal, is because most of these women are doing it with kids in tow. This is the paradox of modern gender relations─for even as women’s participation in the labor force has increased, the time women spend on traditional household and family duties has not measurably decreased. A whopping 88% of women still maintain primary responsibility for food preparations, child care, and the management of family health and of the home.

When it comes to male vs female farmers, the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization’s experts point to a “productivity gap”, with data documenting yields for women-powered farms at 20%-30% lower on average than farms operated by men. The FAO goes so far as to site the burden of household chores as the cause of this disparity:

These additional responsibilities limits women’s capacity to engage in income-earning activities.

It is a huge undertaking for a woman to be a farmer. To care for a family and manage a household, along with the responsibilities that comes with owning and operating a farm, requires a massive amount of coordination, work, and expended energy─every single day. Women must coordinate and budget limited time and energy, in order to be out there in the fields, farming and running businesses, marketing and selling farm products, and still return to the home at the end of the day to care for their families and households. In contrast, male farmers typically have wives who manage those domestic responsibilities on their behalf, allowing men to focus almost exclusively on the job of farming, thus earning more income to support their farms and their families.

Female Farmers ARE a Big Deal

yurt farm mamma_female farmers are a big deal
With her son on her hip, Beverly Spanninger of Turnip the Beets Farm in Gladstone, Virginia, surveys seedlings in their high-tunnel. Photo credit: Turnip the Beets Farm.

It makes sense that women would feel called to farming; studies have shown that women are naturally more compassionate, empathetic and nurturing than men. It is instinctive for women to care for the people around them: children, husbands, parents and other family-members, friends and community-members. It’s that instinct that drives the local food movement, as women all over the world are stepping up to provide healthy food for their families and friends, protect the environment and their homes, and build thriving communities.

Women who choose to call themselves “farmer” are facing adversities and overcoming major challenges every day in order to do the work that they do. They are Bad. Ass. That’s why female farmers are a big deal.

What do YOU think? Feel free to leave a comment below! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box; or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse at life on this bee-friendly, Maine farm!

why female farmers are a big deal

Are Tiny Homes a Good Space for Families?

tiny homes

Tiny homes for families is a topic that has come up more and more often in recent years. People are increasingly interested in the idea of downsizing as a family. The rise in housing prices and the lack of available housing seems to be the culprit. Not to mention the fact that ‘bigger is always better’ doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. At no more than 500 square feet, tiny houses boast unique and functional designs that are often eco-friendly. But how can this small space work for a number of people, let alone an entire family? Let’s take a look at why they work:

Note: This is a guest post submitted by the Tiny House Society, which is dedicated to
promoting the concept of tiny and minimal living as a means of protecting the Earth.
Runamuk is proud to partner with THS to bring you this content.

tiny homes
Photo courtesy Molli McGee.

Tiny Living is Cheaper

The reality is, it’s expensive to become a homeowner nowadays; tiny houses can be a great solution to affordable housing. There are a number of ways it’s possible to own a tiny:

  • Buy a new tiny house. A new tiny house is far more affordable than a new residential home!
  • Buy a second-hand tiny house. Just when buying a car, buying a used tiny home can save you money if you know what to look for.
  • Buy a tiny house shell. A semi-finished tiny house is an excellent choice if you aren’t comfortable with the structural component, but want to do the finishing touches yourself.
  • Build your own tiny house. This can be the most cost-efficient method if you have time, patience, and the know-how. You can also take pride in knowing you designed your own tiny home!

Tiny Living Gives you Flexibility

If you live in a tiny house on wheels, your home is mobile like an RV. Your tiny house on wheels will take you there whether your partner gets a job across the country or your kids need to go to a school in a new town.

Tiny Living Teaches Planet-Friendly Behaviors

Living in a tiny house cultivates mindful living in terms of your effect on the environment in everyday life. Understanding how you accumulate waste in a small space is essential to managing clutter. You’ll think twice before buying goods wrapped in heavy plastic packaging! Additionally, a tiny house that’s designed to go off the grid is often equipped to use renewable energy as a back up. These are all excellent teaching moments for your kids or loved ones!

Tiny Living Brings You Closer Together

While it’s important to know when you need space, the benefit of living in a tiny house with family is that you’re more likely to communicate than hide from a situation. Additionally, family dinners are a natural occurrence no matter where you sit. As for activities, tiny living also goes hand-in-hand with an outdoor lifestyle. Nothing brings people together like a good ‘ol outdoor adventure!

The Takeaway

Living with less allows us to focus on what we value most in life; our family, the time we spend, or the things we consume. While tiny living may not be perfect for every family, it certainly is a way of living that provides a unique opportunity to learn and grow together!

 

Do you have experiences with a tiny home? Feel free to leave a comment below to share with our followers! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your inbox; or follow us on Instragram for a glimpse at the day-to-day goings ons at this bee-friendly conservation farm!

Garden Cover-Cropping at Runamuk

garden cover cropping

Last week was all about cover-cropping the garden here at Runamuk. The chickens had completed their work and I had my new broadfork, along with some seed to put down; there’s something particularly intimate and romantic about working soil, so I was especially jacked up for the project.

garden cover cropAside from the continued focus on the Runamuk apiary, getting the chickens established and prepping the garden for next year are my main goals this first season at the Hive House. Above all else, I’m concerned with the long-term agroecology of my new farm. Because we are all connected on this planet, and because healthy soils are fundamental to the overall profitability and sustainability of my farm, I’ve made it my priority to start with the soil and work my way up.

A Word About “Agroecology”

Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agriculture systems.

The agroecologist views any farming system primarily with an ecologist’s eye; that is, it is not firstly economic (created for commodity and profit), nor industrial (modeled after a factory). Agroecologists do not unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture, but instead they assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with the natural, social and human assets.

This method of agriculture requires a deeper understanding of the complex long-term interactions among resources, people and the environment. Since a love for nature and my fellow man is at the heart of Runamuk, this is how I choose to run my farm.

Prepping the Soil for a Cover-Crop

While there is indeed an existing garden─approximately 25 feet by 80─it was only growing weeds when we arrived at the end of June. I put the chickens on the plot to let them do the work for me, and in 5 short weeks they managed to eliminate the weeds entirely, exposing bare ground for cultivation. They really did an amazing job, and─as an added benefit, the patch got fertilized.

garden when we arrived
This is what the garden looked like when we first arrived at our new #foreverfarm.
chickens working the garden
Here are the chickens at work on the garden.
chicken prepped garden
Once the ground was exposed I moved the chickens over and the soil could be prepped for cover-cropping.

Up til this point I’d only shuffled the fencing along; moving the chicken tractors and the fencing to an entirely new spot while still keeping the birds inside was a little challenging, but I got it all in the end─without any shenanigans, I might add. I’ve put them on a section of earth just next door to the original plot, which I’ve dubbed “The Garden Adjacent”, with the intention of expanding the garden to double the size.

Once I had the chickens off the garden, I eagerly took up my new broadfork and set to work.

broadforkI’ve always loved digging in the dirt. Love love LOVE it! The manual labor, the smell of the earth, the glimpse of microbial life beneath the soil-surface. And I’ve always been particularly partial to my spading fork. The broadfork is simply a larger version─with TWO handles─and easier on my back and body to use. Even still, it took a bit to really get the hang of using the broadfork, and to develop a rhythm with it.

Now─I’m in pretty decent shape for my (nearly) 38 years, but the broadfork offers a really great full-body workout and it turns out that I just couldn’t fork that garden continuously for the 10 hours it took me to complete the job. On Sunday I did 4 hours, then I had to take time off from Johnny’s to get the forking done before the rain that was forecasted for Wednesday. I left the office early on Monday, forked the garden til it was too dark to see, and then was back at it come sun-up Tuesday morning and went to work late that day. Thankfully this is a slow time of year in the Call Center, and my supervisor and colleagues there can allow me some flexibility.

Peas-and-Oats

johnny's peas and oats mix
The peas-and-oats cover-crop mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Once the cultivation with the broadfork was complete, I happily I brought out the seed I’d bought to cover the garden with. I went with Johnny’s peas-and-oats mix because it’s a super easy to manage cover-crop. The peas─like any legume─help to fix nitrogen in the soil, and the oats serve as a nurse crop, sheltering the seed during germination and then offering crop support for the pea plants. Both are annuals and will be killed this fall by the first hard frost we get, and if I leave the plant residue on the plot it will provide a great mulch layer for my new garden.

I followed Johnny’s recommended sowing rate of 5lbs/1000sq.ft. for the peas-and-oats and bought (2) 5-pound sacks to do that 2,000sq.ft section of earth, along with a package of inoculant.

Question: What is inoculant? and do you really need it?

garden combination incoluant
Garden Combination Inoculant─good for ALL legume-family crops.

This is something we are frequently asked in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. What I tell folks is that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t inoculate your legumes; you’ll still get a crop of peas or beans, or whatever it is. Inoculant is simply a packet full of microorganisms that are specific to legume-family plants, which aid in the legume’s nitrogen-fixing abilities. Personally however, I’ve always felt that anything I could do to help the little guys in the soil do their work of facilitating the availability of nutrients and water for my plants is worth the extra $5 and an extra step. But that’s just me; you’ll have to make that call for yourself.

To apply the inoculant I simply took a pail, dumped the first 5-pound sack of seed into it and added half the contents from the package of inoculant. I stirred the seed around with my hand (it’s not harmful in the least), seeking to ensure that all of the seed was evenly coated with the dark powdery inoculant.

Seeding the Garden for a Cover-Crop

It just happened to take 16 passes up and down the garden with the broadfork to complete this first half of our new garden, so it was easy to plan how I would walk down through the plot with the seed and hopefully ration it so that I had enough to do the entire space. I knew Johnny’s said I’d bought enough to do the job, but I also know from experience that when sowing by hand it’s easy to sow too heavy, and then you run out of seed before you cover the whole plot.

And even with my experience and careful planning, I was still too heavy-handed with the first half of the peas-and-oats mix. I found myself rifling through my seed-stash looking for something I could mix with the second half to stretch it out so that I could get the rest of the garden cover-cropped. Lucky for me I work at a seed-company and have access to “up-for-grabs” seeds; my “seed-stash” is sick…no, seriously─I have a problem, lol.

dwarf essex rape via johnnys selected seeds
Dwarf Essex Rape cover-crop; photo courtesy Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

I found a 10-pound sack of Dwarf Essex Rape seed; score! Rape is a member of the brassica-family and somewhat cold-tolerant, which is really ideal because sometimes we can have several more weeks of growing season after that initial killing frost, so this plant will linger into the fall, but still won’t survive our Maine winter so I won’t have to worry about tilling anything under next spring. I mixed some of this with my remaining peas-and-oats, added the rest of the inoculant, and then managed to finish seeding the garden.

Why Not Just Till it Under?

One of Runamuk’s Instagram followers has asked why I’ve done all this work by hand rather than simply taking a rototiller and tilling the plot under? Perhaps you were wondering too?

Certainly that would have been a quicker alternative and I wouldn’t have been so sore afterwards, lol. However, as an agroecologist I’m concerned for the organisms living in the soil and the impact that tilling would have on them. Tilling destroys their homes and populations. I want to encourage their numbers, help them thrive and aid them in their work so they will in turn aid me in my work: building a farm that not only supports it’s farmer, but which also works in tandem with nature, even helping nature.

That being said, I’m not necessarily opposed to tilling; it has it’s place. If I were facing heavily compacted clay soil I would have brought in a tiller, but as it is, the soil here is a nice sandy loam and this spot has been cultivated for years so I didn’t feel the plot really warranted tilling. The soil was workable with the broadfork, and I am strong and capable. I enjoy the work, and I take pride in knowing I’m doing my best to work with the natural forces in play all around me. So I did it by hand and I feel really good about that.

So Satisfying

broadforking at sunset long shadowBy the time I was on my second cup of coffee Wednesday morning, it was drizzling outside and my cover-crop was being watered in. The whole project was so immensely satisfying: clearing the garden with just the chickens, investing in the broadfork, using it to work the soil, and laying down that precious cover-crop seed─the whole experience was really very intrinsically rewarding to me. And that’s why I’m a farmer: because its fulfilling, because I enjoy it, and because I feel called to do this work and live this life. Thanks for following along!

What are your thoughts on cover-cropping? Have you ever tried it? Or, how do you feel about the notion of agroecology??? Leave a comment below to share with the readership so we can all learn together!

Grow Your Own Potatoes With the Trench & Hill Method

potatoes

Potatoes are one of the easiest crops to produce and gardeners can grow their own potatoes using the trench and hill method, even in a first-year garden.

grow your own potatoes
Potatoes growing at Runamuk!

I don’t know about your household, but for ours potatoes are a staple in the pantry, and we go through a LOT of potatoes! Thankfully they’re easy to grow, mercifully reliable, and they keep well through the winter. Every year I make sure to dedicate a fair amount of space to potato production. If you’ve never tried it, I’d strongly encourage you to grow your own potatoes and see for yourself!

Step 1: Purchase “Seed Potatoes”

potato eyes
The eyes of a potato grow up to be potato plants!

Potatoes are grown from potatoes, not from seed as with most other crops in the garden. The spuds intended for growing are kept in a state of dormancy until the planting season draws nigh, then they are brought out of refrigeration and allowed to start sprouting. Those eyes you pick and peel away from your taters when preparing dinner? Those are what become your potato plants.

If you’ve only ever seen the selection of potatoes offered by your local grocery store you’ve been missing out on some really fantastic varieties of potato. Seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and The Maine Potato Lady offer all the traditional varieties you’d find at the supermarket: the Yukon Gold and Red Norland, but also purple taters, fingerling taters, and many more. And if you don’t want to pay to have them shipped, most local garden centers offer at least a couple of basic varieties of seed potato─go see what they’ve got available.

Some varieties mature earlier, and other mature later. The early varieties such as the Red Norland and the fingerling varieties are great for fresh-eating through the summer, while the later maturing varieties like the Kennebec and the Russets tend to be better for storing through the winter.

Step 2: Chit Your Potatoes

Essentially chitting is pre-sprouting your seed potatoes. In my experience this has already happened by the time you receive your seed-potatoes, so you shouldn’t have to worry about it. However, on the off chance that you were to get your hands on some un-sprouted spuds, all you would need to do is lay the tubers out in a spot that is 50-degrees and sunny. The eyes will begin to sprout, and once they have reached 3/4 to and inch long they are ready.

Note: Avoid planting leftover potatoes brought home from the grocery store. Usually these have been sprayed with some kind of retardant to prevent them from sprouting eyes, and you will not have the best of luck trying to grow a crop with them.

Step 3: Cut and Cure

curing seed potatoes
I cut my seed potatoes a few days prior to planting.

Not everyone does this, but cutting the potatoes a few days prior to planting allows the potato flesh to cure─effectively drying the skin─which helps to prevent rot or fungal issues. Cut them into pieces so that there are at least 1-2 eyes per piece, and then spread them out to cure for 2-3 days.

I’ve always cut and cured my taters in advance and have had good luck with it; but if time is short and you need to get this crop in the ground, it’s not the end of the world if you skip the curing.

Step 4: Site Preparation

Potatoes prefer a sandy loam soil, but are a forgiving crop and will produce a harvest in just about any type of soil. The trenching, hoeing and digging involved in potato production is especially helpful in a first-year garden. To prepare for planting of your seed potatoes, hoe a trench 6-12 inches deep, mounding the soil on either side of the trench.

Step 5: Planting

planting seed potatoes
We measured a stick to 12-inches and used it as a guide when planting our seed potatoes.

 

Lay your cut and cured potato pieces in the trench about 12-inches apart, with the eyes pointing up to the sky. These will grow up through the soil to become your potato plants.

Standing on one side of your trench, use your hoe to pull the mounded soil from the opposite side of the trench onto the seed potatoes. Ideally you’ll be covering them with about 6-inches of material. For now, leave the mounded soil on the second side of the trench for hilling later on.

Step 6: Hill the Potato Plants

When the potato plants have grown to be 8-12 inches tall take your hoe and pull the remaining mounded soil onto the potato plants, covering the lower 4-6 inches of the plant and creating a rounded hill all the way down the potato bed.

Step 7: Watch Out for the Potato Beetles!

potato beetle larvae
Potato beetle larvae.

Potatoes can suffer from leafhoppers and aphids, but mostly it’s the Colorado potato beetle that you need to watch out for. These are yellow and black striped beetles that lay their eggs on the underside of your potato leaves, and when the larvae hatches a few days later it begins to feed upon the leaves. Depending upon the degree of infestation, the larvae can cause significant damage to your crop if left unchecked.

Vigilant home gardeners can watch for the beetles and handpick them, drowning them in soapy water. Watch for yellow-orange eggs on the underside of potato leaves─usually laid in batches of 30. Eliminate the eggs by squishing them or scraping them away with your thumb-nail, or just tear that piece of the leaf off and crush it under the heel of your shoe. If you miss some eggs and find larvae eating your plants, pick these off and either feed them to your chickens or drown the larvae in soapy water.

Commercial growers hoping for a crop to sell at market may want to consider using some kind of pesticide for heavy infestations. Johnny’s Selected Seeds carries several products that are approved for use in organic production, such as the Monterey Garden Insect Spray. I’ve used this product myself in the past to knock-down an infestation and save my plants and crop. Just keep in mind that the beetles can develop a tolerance to it and reserve it for emergencies only.

Growers can also use Agribon (also known as row-cover) to keep insects off their plants and avoid the need for pesticides altogether. If you’re not familiar with Agribon or the concept of covering your rows, check out this article I wrote about using Agribon in the Garden.

Step 8: Harvest

fresh-dug-potatoes
Freshly dug spuds at Runamuk.

Potatoes are ready to harvest once they reach a usable size─about 50 days for the earlier maturing varieties. Scratch at the side of the bed, and remove a few tubers without disturbing the plant. Be sure to replace the soil when you’re done, so that the potatoes can continue to grow.

potatoes
Red Norland and Adirondak Blue potatoes, fresh from the garden!

Those first spuds of the season will be crisp and juicy; their skin so tender that it tears easily. I like nothing better than to cut the fresh taters into chunks, boil them up, and when they’re done cooking I drain them and toss them with plenty of butter and fresh chopped parsley (another staple in my garden). It’s a favorite summer dish that I learned from Linda, my farming mentor, and I think of her whenever I make it.

Typically mature potatoes are harvested in the fall. The plants will begin to brown and die back. Wait a couple of weeks once the plants have died before harvesting, in order to allow the tuber to develop their skins.

Harvest your crop using a spading fork and lifting the entire root system out of the soil. Try to avoid spearing too many of your spuds, and handle the fresh potatoes carefully to avoid tearing their skins, which are delicate at this stage. Potatoes that accidentally get pierced or cut in the harvesting should be eaten first.

Don’t wash the potatoes─simply brush loose soil off and set them in a well-ventilated spot out of the sun for a couple of days to allow the skins to dry and firm up before you trundle them off to storage.

Grow Your Own!

If your family eats potatoes you should definitely consider growing some. They really are one of the easiest crops to produce, and if the trench and hill method doesn’t sound like the right approach for you and the property where you live, there are many other methods you can try to grow your own potatoes.

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grow your own potatoes

What are the Essential Tools Needed to Get Started in Beekeeping?

beekeeping smoker

Potential new beekeepers often ask me what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? What do I really need? Beekeeping is a big expense up front, and it can be 2 years sometimes before you see a return on that investment. People usually want to know which tools they absolutely have to have, and which ones they could perhaps do without.

choosing apiary location
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, where miles of pasutre offers superior forage for bees!

#1 Protective Gear

Bees are very sensitive to their beekeeper; they’ll know when you’re nervous or agitated and they’ll respond in kind. New beekeepers are understandably a little fearful of their bees at first─having that protective layer allows you to feel safe while working with the hive. When you feel safe you’ll relax and the bees will too, resulting in fewer stings.

I recommend some kind of veil and gloves at least, to get started in beekeeping. You can get a full suit, or a jacket/veil combos like the one (affiliate link) I recently purchased through Amazon. But you could also make do with a mosquito head-net, a pair of latex gloves, and a long sleeved shirt, which is what I did my first few years as a beekeeper.

Once you become more comfortable with the bees you may not need to use the gear for every trip to the apiary, but you’ll find there will be instances when you will want the added protection of the veil and gloves. Sometimes the bees can be “cranky”─during a nectar dearth for example, or when they suddenly find themselves Queenless, or if a skunk has been pestering them at night. Get some good protective gear and always have it with you when you go to the apiary.

#2 Hive Tool

The hive tool is probably one of my most-used tools─so much so that it fairly lives in my back-pocket during the beekeeping season. I don’t go to the apiary without it, and it’s nearly impossible to work the hives without this tool. Seriously! The bees will put wax and propolis everywhere and you will need some kind of tool to break the seal so that you can manipulate the covers and the frames and the boxes.

I prefer the hive tools with the little hook on one end so that I can get under the lip of the frames to lift them out of the box. The other end has a beveled edge, making it a great scraping tools for clearing away burr-comb or cleaning up boxes after winter losses.

In a pinch you could use a mini pry-bar or a screw driver, but the little hook-thing is such an advantage that I feel it’s worth the $7 investment in this tool. This particular hive tool (affiliate link) is offered by MannLake, and you can get it at an affordable price through Amazon.

#3 Smoker, Smoker-Fuel, and Lighter

Smoke interrupts the chemical pheromone signals that the bees use to communicate with one another. It also distracts the bees, causing an instinctual fear of fire to wash over them and so the bees will go down into the hive to gorge themselves on honey in the event that they should have to abandon the hive to fire. This interruption and distraction is what allows the beekeeper to get into the hive for maintenance.

I prefer the smokers with leather bellows because: a) I’m working to reduce the amount of plastic in my life, and b) the plastic ones have a tendency to crack with use over the span of a few years, and once they can’t hold air the smoker does not function.

The size of the smoker you will need depends upon the number of hives you’re working with. For most backyard beekeepers with 2-4 hives, the smaller smokers are fine. This smoker (affiliate link) is just $12.99 on Amazon and should get you started in your beekeeping adventures.

#4 Frame Grippers

I find I primarily use my frame grippers when I’m first getting into a hive. That first frame can be really difficult to pull up out of the box─fused together with wax and honey and bees, and wedged down between the other frames so that it doesn’t want to give. When used in tandem with the hive tool, the frame grippers make extracting that first frame so much easier on both the beekeeper, and the bees.

There are many different styles of frame grippers available; personally I prefer the straight forward metal ones because they’re durable and easy to clean─these aluminum frame grippers (affiliate link) are available for just under $10 at Amazon.

#5 Bee Brush

You won’t need this tool as frequently as you will the smoker or the hive tool, but when it’s time to harvest honey, or if you want to take a sample to check the mite-pressure in the colony, you’ll want a bee brush.

I have a bee brush like this (affiliate link), which is available on Amazon for $8.60, but my beekeeping mentor liked to use a large turkey feather. Whatever you choose, it should be soft─so that you don’t hurt the bees when you go to brush them off the frame.

#6 Books!

There’s a lot to learn about bees and beekeeping and I strongly advise anyone interested in getting started with bees to first do their homework. You’ll find many, many great books on the subject.

I really like Richard E. Bonney’s books: Beekeeping, A Practical Guide and Hive Management, A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers.

You can’t beat Storey Publishing for good reference manuals, and their Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees is typically the book I include when I offer bee-schools. The Backyard Beekeeper, is another good reference book, with the added bonus of a chapter at the end about using beeswax; it includes some really nice recipes for salves and skin creams.

Once you’ve become acquainted with beekeeping, you’ll naturally start looking for next-level books and Brother Adam’s Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey is one of the most illuminating manuscripts out there. Brother Adam was in charge of all beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey in England between 1919 and 1992. This is not a how-to book; it’s more of a general account of the beekeeping as it was carried out at Buckfast and passed down through the ages. The book offers insight on techniques for rearing and breeding Queens, bee care, seasonal hive management, honey production and even mead-making.

#7 Woodenware

assembling equipment for beehives
Buying unassembled pieces and assembling them yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

What you require for you hive will depend on the style and methods you decide to go with. The traditional Langstroth hive is still the most common type of hive used in beekeeping, but many new beekeepers are having good luck with the Top Bar hives, which have the added benefit of being easy to construct from repurposed materials.

If you go with the Langstroth you will need the following for each hive:

  • Telescoping Cover
  • Inner Cover
  • Bottom Board
  • Boxes for Hive Bodies*
  • Boxes for Honey Supers*
  • Entrance Reducer
  • Mouseguard
  • Hive Stand

*The number of boxes you’ll need to invest in will be contingent upon how you choose to set up your hives. Standard set up for a Langstroth hive is 2 deeps, and I usually recommend having 4 honey supers on hand. However, more and more beekeepers are choosing to use medium boxes exclusively on their hives because they’re easier to lift. 3 medium boxes are essentially the equivalent of 2 deeps if you decide to go with mediums, but it might be a good idea to keep at least 1 deep box on hand in case you should ever need to buy replacement nucleus colonies, as those tend to come in a deep nuc box. Generally it costs about $200 on average for the hive pieces.

Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine.

I’m fortunate to live within driving range of Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine, which allows me to save on shipping. This is a Maine-based company manufacturing woodenware─the hive boxes, tops and bottoms, and frames. They supply large beekeeping operations as well as hobbyists across New England and the East Coast, using Maine’s own Eastern White Pine, which grows in abundance in our state to produce easy to assemble equipment.

I’d recommend searching locally for quality woodenware first, but if you don’t have a good source within driving range, check out Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.

Be wary of buying used equipment. Used equipment may be carrying diseases that killed it’s previous occupants. Residues that are left behind can live for years and you could be slowly or quickly killing your honeybee investment by putting them in dangerous equipment. Unless you know why the equipment is available and how it was used, I would avoid used hive equipment.

#8 Feeders

feeding beehives syrup in the fall
Mason-jar sugar-syrup feeder.

Bees, like any other livestock, sometimes need supplemental feed in order to survive. You’ll need a way to be able to offer sugar-syrup to the bees. There are many feeders available commercially, but for the small-scale or backyard beekeeper, I recommend the mason-jar.

Simply take a quart-sized mason jar, which most homesteaders and farmers have around the house anyway, perforate the lid and then fill with sugar-syrup. Place the feeder directly on the inner cover, inside another box and under the telescoping cover.

Voila! A bee-feeder!

#9 Sugar

Beekeepers should always have extra sugar on-hand for feeding their bees. New packages and nucleus colonies need to be fed in order to grow strong enough to fill their hives and survive the winter. Even after a colony is fully established there are times when they require supplemental feeding, like when there’s a dearth in the nectar flow, or during a poor season.

Avoid raw sugar, which can cause dysentery in the hive. This is one case where the refined granulated sugar is the better option for the health of the colony.

#10 Bees!

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Naturally you’re going to need bees to put in your beehive, lol. Certainly you can save on the cost of the bees if you can catch a swarm to install in your hive, but swarms are not as common today as they were 30 years ago. And with so many new beekeepers all vying for free bees, you might have a hard time filling your hive that way.

I strongly encourage new beekeepers to seek out a local apiary offering nucleus colonies from hardy stock adapted to your specific region. Check with your state’s beekeepers’ association for a list of suppliers near you, and be prepared to order well in advance of the season. Here in Maine, if you haven’t ordered your nucs by the end of February, you’ll have a hard time finding any at all; pricing can range anywhere between $125 to $180 for 4 or 5 frame overwintered nucleus colonies.

Bee Proactive!

It’s a wise idea to prepare in advance of the beekeeping season so that all of your equipment is assembled, painted and ready to go when you need it. Get a tool box for your beekeeping tools. Stow your veil and gloves beside the smoker along with extra fuel, and keep everything at the ready in case of emergency.

Beekeeping (unless you’re managing larger numbers of hives) doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it is time sensitive. Typically, when you need something you need it immediately and delaying hive manipulations because you need to put a box together or because you have to run to the store for sugar before you can make more syrup, can cause a chain of events which could result in the eventual demise of the colony. Beekeepers should always bee proactive (had to go there lol, sorry-not sorry!) to ensure the survival of their colonies, such is the nature of beekeeping today.

Do you have a beekeeping tool you just couldn’t do without? Share it with us by leaving a comment below!

Thinking of getting bees? Wondering what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? Check out Runamuk Acres in Maine for the answer!

Feeding bees pollen-patties in early spring

feeding bees in early spring

Each winter, as we work to grow our apiary to the goal of 100 hives, I closely monitor the condition of our hives throughout the course of the long winter.  After each big snow, I make this trek out across pastures to ensure the entrances are clear for my girls.  I take advantage of the rare warm days to pop open the hives briefly, adding my sugar cakes if a colony is low on stores, and sometime in March, I reward my girls with a pollen patty.

feeding bees pollen patties in early springI won’t breathe a sigh of relief, however, until the dandelion bloom is underway.  February through May is the most difficult time of year for honeybees in our part of the world.  Even if a colony has sufficient stores going into the winter, there’s always the possibility that they may eat themselves into a corner and not be able to reach the other honey stores due to the freezing temperatures, and their own instinctual reluctance to break their winter cluster.

Typically colonies that die of starvation are those that are the most populous, but the nature of each individual winter can have an impact on the condition of the hive, too.  Warmer winter temperatures can cause more activity in the hive, resulting in quicker consumption of the colony’s stores.  Extreme cold, such as 2014’s “Polar Vortex” can cause a fatal chill among the bees.  Trusting in nature, I know that the strongest colonies will survive the long Maine winter, and as they begin to build up in population, growing into summer, I will again make my splits and Nucs to grow the Runamuk apiary just a little more.

And so, in anticipation of the spring season, I feed my bees pollen-patties.

What are pollen patties?

These are are a mixture of ingredients, including pollen, sugar, vitamins, lemon juice or citric acid, dried egg, oil, yeast, and honey, designed to stimulate brood production.  There are many different recipes out there, and so far there has not proven to be one that stands out above all others, and experiences among beekeepers will vary.

Pollen patties are stiff and thick and are designed to lay across the top of the frames inside the hive, directly above the brood nest, so that they are immediately accessible to the bees, even in frigid temperatures.

Why feed bees pollen patties?

stimulating brood production through supplemental feeding of pollen patties
This is a nice frame of capped brood, soon the young bees will emerge and be ready to get to work.

Not every beekeeper needs to do this.  The larger commercial beekeeping outfits feed supplemental pollen in order to build up the populations in their hives prior to going to the almond groves.  Beekeepers who raise Nucs and Queens to sell to other beekeepers, may feed their colonies pollen patties to build up the population before they begin making nucleus colonies or breeding Queens.  The average hobbyist should not need to worry about their bees having sufficient pollen available for the spring build-up, since pollen is often available even when nectar is not.  Pollen from trees is some of the first food sources available to bees early in the spring, and bees can even be seen bringing pollen in well into October.

Bees need both pollen and honey in order to reproduce.  While adult bees eat honey, the bee larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein pollen.  Nurse-bees consume the pollen in bee-bread form, which then allows the nurses to secrete the Royal jelly that larvae need during their first three days of life.  Then, as the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee-bread and honey.

By offering the bees an enriched diet through supplemental feedings of pollen–the nurse bees are able to secrete lots of Royal jelly, so they prepare cells for eggs, and the Queen in turn deposits the eggs, and suddenly brood production is in full swing.  Having a larger population as we move into the spring is desirable not only if you intend to make the apiary increases that I do, but also to increase the rate of honey production,

When should you feed pollen patties?

If you’re going to supplement with pollen patties to encourage brood production in your hives, when you begin feeding them is of crucial importance–it’s hugely dependent on your location, region, and climate.  Since the bees will usually refuse the pollen supplements once the good stuff is available outside, you’ll want as many bees as possible to take advantage of that first major pollen flow, which will continue to spur brood production gearing up for the start of the up-coming nectar flow.

feeding bees in early spring
Trees offer the earliest forms of pollen and nectar for honeybees and native pollinators.

Knowing when that main honey flow will begin allows you to count back 8-9 weeks before it will begin, so that you will have 4 good flushes of brood before the first honey flow begins.  So get a calendar, and if you don’t know when the honey flows occur in your area, go ask the beekeepers at your local beekeepers’ association.

Here in my part of Maine our nectar flows begin with the dandelion bloom, which typically starts around Mother’s Day in May.  Counting back 9 weeks from Mother’s Day will find me beginning feeding my bees supplemental pollen in the second week of March.  I won’t pin it down to a specific day because opening the hives to place the patties on will be dependent on the weather and temperatures.  I’ll wait for a warmer, sunny day with little to no wind, and then I will make my rounds, popping open each hive just long enough to place a patty across the frames.

Waiting for spring

For now, there is still snow on the ground, and even as I write this it is snowing outside once again, but it won’t be long before the grass will be green again, the trees will be sporting their freshly unfurled leaves, flowers will be in bloom, and the bees will be buzzing about the fields once more.

Supplemental feedings of pollen and pollen substitutes may not be right for every beekeeper, but at Runamuk, as we continue to expand our apiary little by little, ensuring that our hives have plenty of strong bees available for making spring splits and Nucs–and even just for successful honey production–it is a key component of our management practices.