Help Runamuk do more for pollinator conservation!

I’ve been presented with an exciting new opportunity–stumbled into it, really. Our core group of Somerset Beekeepers is made up of members who have been at it for 2 or more years now, and we are ready for some more advanced beekeeping topics–so I’ve been emailing various academics and beekeepers across the state trying to enlist guest speakers.  When I contacted Alison Dibble–a conservation biologist and botanist with the University of Maine–she responded with a tantalizing offer to participate in a course that she and Frank Drummond are teaching at the Eagle Hill Institute in August. Read more

Pollinator decline threatens agriculture

sichuan china

As president of the Somerset Beekeepers, people often ask me if it is only the honeybees who are in trouble, or is it all bees?

bumblebee on a coneflowerNot only is it all bees–it’s all of our pollinators, too!  Everything from bees to beetles and butterflies, even flies–are all at risk.  And a new study that was recently published in the scientific journal “Science” analyses the issue. Read more

Designing a sustainable future with permaculture principles

permaculture design principles

When the idea of Runamuk first began to form in my mind, I envisioned a future for my family that revolved around living in harmony with the land.  I imagined that we would cultivate, nurture and protect the land, and the land in turn would support and nurture our family for generations to come.  I pictured a farm where the natural ecosystems were intertwined with the working and functioning of a sustainable enterprise that, while not making us wealthy people, supports our needs and provides us with a satisfying life.

Some would say (and have) that it is a dream–a figment of my imagination–the land cannot possibly support a family in that way.  But I’ve learned otherwise.  People all over the world are moving away from large scale commercial agriculture and finding ways to support themselves and their families in organic agriculture.  In America alone there are some 30,000 farmers using alternative methods.  Around the world the green movement is gaining momentum, while many Americans are still in denial.  We’ve achieved incredible productivity with our American style of agriculture–but at the expense of the land and the natural ecology of our country.  We face a cross-roads.  America must learn to understand Nature–to work with it, rather than against it.

Developed in the late 1970’s in Australia by Boll Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture teaches us how to observe the natural dynamics of the ecological systems that surround us.  We can then apply that knowledge in constructing ecosystems that serve the needs of the human population without degrading the natural environment.  Using a unique blend of traditional practices and scientific knowledge, ageless wisdom, innovative new ideas and technology, time-tested strategies and useful information from around the world–we can design a perennial agricultural system.

That’s what I want to do at Runamuk.

Since we’re essentially starting at square-one there, we have the opportunity to design the farm however we like.  Like I do with every new project, I’ve been doing a lot of research into designing the sustainable farm.  I’ve been studying alternative agriculture for years now, but now that we actually have a home to move Runamuk to,  my research has escalated, and it’s come time to put plans on paper.  I’ve been relying heavily on the key design principles of permaculture to lay out the Runamuk farm.

Permaculture design principles

permaculture design principles
Here is my personal interpretation of the permaculture design principles and what they mean to me and and my vision for Runamuk.

By observing natural ecosystems, we can learn to imitate Nature and can create constructed ecosystems that are productive and non-polluting.

Visions & Ethics – By developing specific goals, values, and intentions, from the basic permaculture ethics, which state that Nature is perpetually caring for the Earth and all of it’s creatures, reinvesting in it’s future–we can imitate Nature in establishing a clear vision of the systems we want to create.

Site Observation & Analysis – To make best use of the land, the principles of permaculture dictate that we observe the slope, orientation and sectors affecting the property.  The slope defines the flow of energy and nutrients through the area, while the site’s orientation to the sun creates various  conditions on each slope.  The sectors of sun, rain, native animals, etc. are defined by energies and nutrients moving across the site.  We can maximize use of these sectors by collecting the resources they offer.

Relative Placement – The principles of permaculture state that in nature creatures form beneficial relationships, so that the needs of one meets the needs of another.  By placing elements so that they care for each other, and in turn reduce external outputs, work, unused outputs, and such.  We can encourage similar relationships between the elements of our farm.

Multiple Elements for Each Function – Functions in Nature are typically supported by more than one component.  At Runamuk we can give our system the resiliency to survive even when one element fails by providing alternate systems for each necessary function.

Multiple Functions for Each Element – Relationships in Nature are formed with other elements when each component of the system performs several functions.  We can support the web of life, creating stability on our property by incorporating elements with multiple relationships.

Using Biological Resources – In Nature life in a system increases over time as the sun’s energy is captured and stored in living tissues, while inert materials are converted into organic compounds that feed more life.  The use of biological resources increases the health and yield of a system when used in place of inorganic materials, and decreases the need for external inputs.

Recycling Energy & Nutrients – Energy and nutrients cycle through a system over and over again until they eventually leave it–the trick is slowing  them down enough to capture those resources in the first place so that the system has time to absorb them.

Mimicking Natural Succession – When a forest is disturbed, Nature will begin to heal itself.  Hardy plants we sometimes call “weeds” are often the first to return to the site.  They have many benefits and healing characteristics for the landscape.  We can speed up the process of natural succession by planting a variety of useful species all at once, and then let them play out their natural evolution, guiding the system to maturity through careful observation of their natural progression.

Maximizing Diversity – In Nature the diversity of a system is not indicated by the number of components, but by the number of symbiotic relationships among them.  We can increase the stability of the system at Runamuk by increasing it’s diversity, thus minimizing pest problems and competition for nutrients.  By creating microclimates we can encourage species diversification, and maximize the edge between these ecosystems to encourage interaction.  “Edges” are where two different ecosystems over-lap, and are especially diverse areas.

Stacking In Space & Time – Life in a vibrant ecosystem abounds, making use of every possible niche, stacking living creatures in time, too, creating a perpetual system so that some creatures are just beginning their lives, while others are reaching maturity or decomposing.  Permaculture encourages us to make use of all opportunities to stack elements in order to utilize the full potential of an area, thus yielding an array of useful products over the course of the year.

Using Appropriate Technology – To imitate Nature, avoid using human technology, which can actually cause your system to loose energy, and force you to work harder.  The principles of permaculture instruct the farmer to use simple and clean technologies that rely on gravity, radiant and renewable energies, and easily available materials, since in Nature natural systems function just fine without human technology.

In conclusion

It’s fairly involved, but once established the permaculture system can be maintained using a minimum amount of materials, energy and labor.  The system has enough stability and resilience to thrive even in the event that one element fails, which offers a greater potential for long term economic stability compared to that of the conventional agricultural system.

But I am by no means an expert on this subject, I have only offered you a taste of what I have been learning as we move forward with our plans for Runamuk, and a glimpse of what our future holds.  Please check out the resources below for more information if you are at all interested in the concept of permanent agriculture–aka-permaculture.  And by all means, feel free to share your insight and experiences by leaving a comment below!  😀

Recommended reading:

Permaculture Design for Small Farms and Homesteads – a general overview from Mother Earth News.

Permaculture Design Principles and Guidelines -Tropical Permaculture (but don’t let the name fool you–these guidelines are the same no matter if you’re in the tropics or New England).

What is Permaculture – a great informative PDF from the Central Rocky Mtn. Permaculture Institute.

Sepp Holster’s Permaculture; A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening; by Sepp Holster.

Introduction to Permaculture; by Bill Mollison.

The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town & Country; by Peter Bane and David Holmgren.

10 tips to help you stretch your meat-budget

dried beans
local chicken breast
Kniffin’s locally and sustainably produced boneless chicken breast.

Previously I ranted about budget-meat versus local and sustainably raised meats.  I’m not going to rehash the topic–but you can read that post here if you are so inclined.  Basically my point was that if you’re truly committed to avoiding the factory farmed meats offered at the grocery store, there are ways to eat sustainably produced meats with a clear conscience while still maintaining your budget.  I’ve come up with ten great tips that we use in the Runamuk homestead to stretch our meat-budget, and I’m going to share them with you in hopes that you too will make the effort to make the commitment to protect nature, promote sustainability, and take a stand against the inhumane treatment of animals in the commercial farming business.

1. Buy in bulk/stock up on sales.
If your local butcher or natural foods store offers a monthly meat package, this is a great option for families.  Look for weekly and seasonal sales to take advantage of and stock up.  Or consider buying a side of beef or half a pig.  Perhaps you have family or friends that might split the cost and the meat with you.

2. Ground meats.
Ground beef, pork, or chicken are a great way to stretch your dollar.   Use ground meats in casseroles, pasta dishes like spaghetti, fajitas, tacos, pizza, calzones, meatloaf and meatballs, the possibilities are endless.

Photo credit:

3. Learn to like legumes.
Add beans to ground meats to double the volume.  Beans assume the flavor of whatever they are cooked with and can be hidden in ground meats to accustom your meat-lovers to the taste.  When your family learn to like the legumes it opens the door for many more money-saving meals, such as beans and rice, bean burritos, vegetarian-style soups and casseroles.  But don’t stop at beans!  Lentils are another high-protein legume that is also low in calories.  Don’t be afraid to try new foods!

4. Go meatless.
Make “Meatless Monday” an honored ritual in your household.  If your family are devout carnivores (like my husband Keith)–start small, with a meat-less spaghetti, or a homemade macaroni and cheese–something familiar.  Then as the idea of meat-less dishes sinks in, take the opportunity to try new vegetarian dishes on Meatless Monday.  Eventually you will be able to incorporate more meatless meals into your diet, and stretch your meat-budget even further.

5. Stick to portion-size recommendations.
Many Americans eat far more meat than their bodies actually need.  The United States Department of Agriculture’s suggested serving size for cooked meat is between 2 and 3 ounces per person.  About the size of a deck of cards or a bar of soap.  And the ratio of vegetable and grains to meat should always outnumber the meat on your plate.  Keep that in mind when planning your meals.

6. Make a plan–and stick to it!
This is easier said than done in my world.  With two growing boys and a husband with a high metabolism who has a constant craving for meat–things can and do go missing.  Making a plan helps with the budgeting of the freezer stores, as well as saving time trying to figure out the proverbial “What’s for dinner?”–and I’ve found that labeling ingredients needed for particular dishes helps keep them on-hand until I’m ready to make a meal.  Also creative stashing in cupboards and the deep recesses of the refrigerator helps to hide them at snack-time.

7. Plan for left-overs.
When you cook a roast and find yourself with left-over meats, think ahead to tomorrow and plan for other dishes.  Fajitas, casseroles, soups, pizzas and calzones are all great ways to make good use of left-over meats while stretching your budget.  Also, try left-over meats in stir-fries, on shish-ka-bobs, and on salads.

8. Use meat as an accent ingredient.
Think of meat as a condiment–a way to add flavor to your main dish.  This mind-set will help you to utilize your meats more sparingly.

9. Crumble away.
When cooking ground meats, continue to break it up until the meat reaches the size of bacon-bits.  Usually people stop at the chunk stage, but you can achieve even further savings by breaking it up even more.  And this methods also helps in using meat as a flavoring and accent ingredient–rather than the highlight of the meal.

rice pilaf casserole
Rice pilaf casserole with diced chicken breast and broccoli.

10. Dice your meat.
Boneless cuts of chicken are an inexpensive purchase. Dicing it to bits and using it in soups, casseroles, on pizza, in fajitas and the like, makes great use of a powerful saving strategy.

I hope that more and more people will realize the inhumanity of the big commercial farms, the injustice it does us as humans to treat other animals so inconsiderately, and the dangers to the environment such methods pose.  By utilizing these strategies anyone can stretch their dollar and still eat meat with a clear conscience.  All it takes is a little determination and an unyielding commitment.
Feel free to try my recipe for “Rice Pilaf Casserole“.

Meat rant

factory farmed chicken

I want to take a moment today to talk about meat.  Actually–I’m going to stand on my soap-box and rant about meat.  Specifically big-box grocery store meat versus the alternative. Read more

What really demonizes Monsanto

It was brought to my attention recently that Monsanto is not bad–it’s just a corporation looking to make money.  At the recent MSBA meeting Monsanto affiliate Jerry Hayes spoke about the company’s desire for sustainable agriculture (you can read that post here), but if that is true then there are some seriously misguided people leading that corporate entity.  In my opinion, what really demonizes Monsanto is their complete and utter disregard for man and nature, and their incessant corporate greed. Read more

GMOs, Let’s review

A recap of the health issues with GMOs:

Previous posts in the GMO series: What’s the problem with GMOs?, How GM-foods affect the body, Let me decide, Old Mansanto had a farm, 10 tips on how to avoid GMOs.

Next post: What really demonizes Monsanto

What’s the problem with GMOs?

October is GMO awareness month.  In order to raise awareness of GMOs and in participation of Non-GMO Awareness month, I’ve put together a series of blog-posts to help inform those who may not know why this is such a big deal.

What is GMO?

Photo credit: Public Domain Images

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, and they are plants that have had foreign genes from bacteria and viruses FORCED into their DNA.  The insertion process happens at the cellular level, and causes a ripple effect of collateral damage throughout the DNA of the plant that can delete or turn natural genes on or off permanently.

Touted advantages of GM crops

Advocates for genetically modified crops claim the process is safe, and that the harvest produced is safe to eat.  They say that genetic modification is safe for the environment, reduces use of pesticides, increases crop yields–thereby helping to solve the food crisis–even creates a more stable economy.  Proponents of GM crops even maintain that these engineered crops are no different from naturally bred crops.

Effects of GMOs

While the corporations behind the creation of genetically modified organisms assert that they are safe all around, a large and growing body of scientific research and on-the-ground experience indicates differently.  Studies have shown that there are serious environmental hazards, risks to human health, and even economic concerns related to the existence of GMOs.

A threat to the environment

native pollinator
Photo credit: Flickr

Insects can devastate a farmer’s crops and subsequently his livelihood if left unchecked.  For generations farmers have applied a variety of practices and pesticides to maintain the health and success of their produce.  Now they plant seed bearing the gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces the Bt toxin that kills insect pests.  This toxin also kills beneficial insects–kills insects indiscriminately–has even been linked to the collapse of pollinator populations world wide.

What’s more is that there is evidence that these modified genes are cross-breeding with unmodified crops.  Since corn is wind-pollinated, a strong breeze can carry pollen a good distance to contaminate a pure variety separated by acres of land.  There is no such thing as containment, and no such thing as co-existence–the GMO gene is a dominant one that will completely overtake anything it cross-pollinates with.

Human Health Risks

There have been a number of studies that have shown that foods containing GM-ingredients cause a number of serious health problems, especially in infants and children–who have no blood-brain barrier to protect their developing bodies from the harmful effects of GMOs.

By introducing a foreign gene into these plants, it has effectively created a new allergen which causes a reaction in susceptible individuals; since the 1990s scores of children in the US and the UK have developed life threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods.

A number of studies have shown that GMOs cause damage to the gastrointestinal system of animals–including humans–and GMOs have even been linked to the rise of autism in children.

GMOs can cause fertility problems, as well as issues with the immune system, faulty insulin regulation, and significant changes in major organs–not to mention tumors.

Economic Concerns

Already the food trade export from North America has essentially collapsed due to the rejection of GM-crops and foods containing GM-ingredients by other countries.  In 1995-’96 foods were being exported at a rate of 2.8 million tons; in 2000-’01 that number had dropped to practically nothing.

Thanks to the consolidation of seed companies, farmers have little choice but to buy GM-seed at a rate that is 25-40% higher due to the technology fees associated with GM-seed, and are loosing money when that investment does not return a profit.

Economist Michael Duffy of Iowa State University analyzed soybean crops and discovered that herbicide tolerant GM soy LOST more money per acre ($-8.87/acre) than non-GM soy ($-0.02/acre) after all factors had been considered.

The GMO Controversy

Because of the protective nature of GM-seed companies like Monsanto over their technology, it has been nearly impossible to verify whether or not GM crops perform as advertised.  These companies have essentially given themselves veto-power over any work done by independent researchers by enacting end-user agreements similar to that found accompanying software and other such technologies.

GM seed customers must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with the seeds, and which forbids the user from using them in any independent research.  Under threat of litigation, scientists are prevented from testing the seeds to see in which conditions the seeds thrive or fail, and scientists cannot examine the seeds to determine if GM crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.

Only studies that the seed company approves ever see publication in a peer-reviewed journal, typically only studies that have produced a result that casts a favorable light on the GM-seed and the company.  And until recently only short-term studies 60-90 days had been performed, no long-term studies had been allowed.

And that is only one aspect of what’s wrong with this picture.

gm canola
Photo credit: Fotopedia

In 2004 the supreme court of Canada ruled that it doesn’t matter how Monsanto’s GM-seed ends up in your fields–you no longer own those crops.  You are no longer allowed to use your own seed if it gets contaminated with a genetically modified organism.

Percy Schmeiser has been growing canola for 40 years, and had developed his own varieties through careful and painstaking selection and storage of seed.  Then Monsanto accused him of developing genetically modified foods, charged him with patent infringement, and demanded restitution.  And that is just one example out of many.


The technology that GMOs are based upon is outdated and corrupt.  And the scientific process has all but been ignored.  There was little to no exploration of the effects of these altered organisms, and while the benefits advertised by GM seed companies have been disproven, America’s corrupted government has been swayed to ignore the evidence.

Out of all of this, there are two key points to remember:

a) there is no such thing as containment, and

b) there can be no co-existence–the GMO gene is a dominant one, and it will take over whatever it comes in contact with.

Think about that as we proceed through the up-coming posts, focusing on some of these topics that I’ve merely glossed over here, for if the GM genes were to spread unchecked–what would happen to the world’s food supply?  What would happen to humanity–to our children?  Is this really something man-kind should be messing around with?  Is it not akin to playing with fire?

Check out the next article in the GMO-series: How GM-food affect the body

Resources for this article:

GM-Crops: Just the Science

GMO food: Harmful or Helpful?

Moms! GMO Foods Threaten Your Children

Conversations w/ Great Minds – Jeffrey Smith GMOs – Seeds of Deception

The World According to Monsanto

Bees have been good to me

So what if I’m quickly becoming known as the local “Bee-lady”–that’s not so bad (better than being the crazy cat-lady, if you ask me). Bees have been very good to me.

In the three years since I brought home my first colony, my life has changed dramatically–in a very positive way.

I did not expect to be so taken with these stinging insects, but somehow they have fascinated me, intrigued me, bee-fever hit me and even after all this time that fever has yet to break.  And this obsession does not stop at honeybees. Read more

Pollinator Conservation at MOFGA


Keith said I had a glazed look in my eyes as we sat in the conference room at the MOFGA educational facility in Unity yesterday. I was high on the excitement and pure joy of participating in the Pollinator Conservation Planning Short-Course offered by the Xerces Society.

I first learned about the course last year when I was up to my neck in research, studying pollinators and how to promote them.  The Xerces Society offers a myriad of free resources and articles on their site, and I even went so far as to order their book “Attracting Native Pollinators”, which is an incredible resource.  They offer the short-course at locations around the country, but at the time there were no scheduled visits to Maine, so I submitted my name to their notification list and this year I got the word. Read more