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

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

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

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

dharma farm

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

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

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

1. Support Local Economies

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

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

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

2. Cultivate Food Security

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

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

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

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

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

3. Stewardship Opportunities

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

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

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

4. Increased Self-Reliance

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

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

5. Build Community

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

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

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

6. Vibrant Farming Community

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

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

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

7. Land-Rich

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

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

Consider Farming as a Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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!

How is the Cost of Farmland Affecting Beginning Farmers?

farmland

Having spent several years now pouring over real estate listings in search of my own forever farm, I have become painfully aware of the cost of farmland. Farmland prices are rising, and good land for farming is becoming increasingly scarce. This has serious implications for the future of the nation’s farm economy and farm system, but also for America’s agricultural landscape. As the older generation of farmers begins to wane, what will happen to their farmland? How will new farmers access land to grow the food that feeds our country? And how can we preserve farmland for future generations?

Barriers to farming

how is the cost of farmland affecting beginning farmersAccording to a 2009 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, beginning farmers face 2 primary obstacles:

  • High start-up costs
  • Lack of available land for purchase/rent

The study also found that beginning farmers tend to earn less income from their farms. They have more off-farm income and are less likely to rent farmland than established farmers. This is because rental agreements are inherently less secure than land-ownership, discouraging investment on the part of the farmer.

A 2011 report on beginning farmers “Building a Future with Farmers” by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition came up with similar results: 78% of respondants rated lack of capital as the biggest obstacle. 68% cited finding affordable land to purchase or landowners willing to make long-term agreements. 40% reported access to credit, including small operating loans.

Respondants found these barriers to be more challenging than business planning or marketing skills, finding good education and training.

The researchers from the National Young Farmers’ Coalition interviewed representatives from 30 different organizations around the country who work with farmers and found that the one issue raised by virtually everyone was access to land. The representatives interviewed pointed to many resources to help with financing and credit, farm production, and business and marketing skills, but few actual resources exist to help new farmers gain access to land.

Note: For more on the challenges beginning farmers face, check out this article from Choices magazine.

Rising farmland prices

rowcover at johnnys selected seeds albion
Crop field at Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ research farm in Albion, Maine.

Studies show that most farmers acquire land by purchasing from a non-relative. Therefore, trends in the farmland market are critical to entry opportunities and the cost of farmland. This explains why beginning farmers are more likely to not own land.

Between 2000 and 2008 farmland values have doubled in the United States. Those values are still rising today, driven by foreign investors and development pressures.

According the the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the average farmland real estate value in  2010 was $2,140 per acre, and in 2017 the price per acre for farmland is $2,728. But the agricultural value of land is dependent upon the quality of it’s soil─not it’s development possibilities─and how much income it can produce for farmers.

Due to historical program eligibility conditions, land used for cash grains such as soybean, corn, and rice, are more likely to have an agricultural base than other types of farmland uses (vegetables, fruit, nuts, livestock, etc.). Owning farmland with a base encourages established farmers to continue farming.

The ERS reports that since 2009, US farmland values have been supported by relatively strong farm earnings fueled by record high commodity prices. When coupled with historically low interest rates, the market is able to support higher land values. This is a boon for those exiting the industry, but just the opposite for those trying to buy in.

Lost farmland

old farmland and barn with wild flowers
1.3 million acres of land once dedicated to the cultivation of food, has either been lost to the Maine woods or to development.

In the 1800’s Maine had 6.5 million acres of open farmland. Everybody farmed then. Maine was such a vast state with homesteads so spread out across the country side that residents had no choice but to grow their own food. Since then a total of 1.3 million (or 22.4%) acres of land once dedicated to the cultivation of food has either been lost to the Maine woods or to development.

The phenomenon has accelerated in recent years. Economists detail how much more valuable that farmland would be if it were rezoned for development. Large tracts of land are being bought up and broken into smaller lots for housing. This has a serious impact on the farming industry,  leaving beginning farmers fewer options when it comes to finding farmland. It also makes securing that land much more difficult.

Additionally, the farmland retirement program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), encourages established farmers with interest in retiring to place their land in the CRP, rather than exiting farming and selling or renting their land to other producers.

Fewer new farmers

Farmers between the ages of 65 and 74 represent the fastest growing sector of the farming population. According to the USDA’s 2012 Agricultural Census the average age of principal farm operators is 58.3 years old. There are twice as many farmers who are 75 and older, as there are farmers who are 34 and younger.

There can be no doubt that we need the new generation of farmers who are eager to participate in the local food movement. Yet between 1982 and 2007, the percentage of principal operators with fewer than 10 years’ experience dropped from 38% to 26%. The percentage of young farmers fell also, from 16% to 5%, with data from the 2012 Census confirming the continuation of that downward trend. Principal operators with fewer than 10 years’ experience now accounts for 22% of the total, while young farmers represent less than 6%.

The decline of beginning farmers and ranchers has been so sharp that in 2010 US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack urged Congress to consider adding a policy goal of 100,000 new farmers.

Addressing farmland access

In 2007, to explore and address the concerns of farmland access, succession, tenure, and stewardship (FarmLASTS), a national multi-year project was initiated by a collaboration between Land for Good and the University of Vermont. According to the report compiled by FarmLASTS, only 3% of farmland buyers are new farmers. Socially disadvantaged farmers face additional challenges, including cultural and language barriers.

farmers markets increase oppportunities for beginning farmers sign
Farmers’ markets increase opportunities for beginning farmers.

How will the decrease in beginning farmers affect the country? Based on policies, programs, and statements various policy makers have revealed they believe it matters to the country’s long-term food security. Some policy makers have even expressed the hope that beginning farmers will play a role in revitalizing rural communities, halting the long-term population losses the United States is suffering in those rural areas.

However, until we come up with some kind of incentive to encourage the older generation of farmers to work with beginning farmers─to ensure the stewardship of existing farmlands─the current trend is likely to continue.

Certainly it can be a harrowing experience for non-farmer landowners to sell to farmers because of the difference in the cost of farmland verses it’s value for potential development. Not all landowners are in a position to sell their property for anything less than top dollar, yet those who can afford to want to do just that.

Consumers are waking up to the health risks associated with processed foods. They’re realizing the environmental impacts of an industrialized farming system. People are turning to local foods, and farmers’ markets are on the rise across the US. In 1994 there were 1,755 farmers’ markets throughout the States; in 2014 that number had risen to 8,268─an increase of 471% over a 20-year time span.

The growth of local foods offers opportunity for beginning farmers, with farmers’ markets serving as an incubator for new farmers. Local farmers’ markets allow beginning farmers to grow their business and become a part of their community.

Agriculture needs community

The fact remains that fewer beginning farmers are coming into the industry, and not all of them will endure the long hard struggle to farm ownership. Innovative programs such as the Maine Farmland Trust’s “Forever Farms” project, which uses agricultural easements to preserve fertile land for farming, can help to stem the tide of farmland lost. Unfortunately it’s going to take more than a few organizations to rebuild and maintain a farming industry in rural America. Agriculture needs the support of the community. Not only is this industry dependent upon consumer support and the participation of local townsfolk, it thrives on it and in return feeds our country in more ways than one.

The number of beginning farmers entering agriculture is directly related to the cost of farmland and the obstacles new farmers face. At this time there are many questions left unanswered. Until policy is made to bridge the gap─to encourage more people to sell their lands as farmland, and to increase access to financing─it will continue to be a struggle for beginning farmers looking to get into the business.

Making the most of it as a land-less farmer

spring hives 2017

One of the great things about beekeeping is that I can do it from anywhere. Everyone wants beehives on their property, especially if someone else is going to do the work and all the land-owner has to do is sit back and enjoy the bees. I’ve had so many offers for apiary locations that I’ve lost count. Even if I were living in an apartment I could still keep bees, make soap and sell honey. Being a land-less farmer has no bearing on my bee-operation and that fact has allowed Runamuk to persevere these last 7 years.

spring hives 2017Saturday was Madison’s first market day of the 2017 season; Runamuk and I were there with an assortment of handmade beeswax soaps and wildcrafted herbal salves. Jars of dark, dark honey were proudly displayed. This was the first time in 2 years I’ve had honey for sale─and the result of hive losses over the course of the winter.

No, it’s not the apiary that suffers as a result of being a land-less farmer….

At the urging of some of my farming friends, I’ve decided to keep Sundays for myself─a day off to rest and recharge is very important in preventing burn-out. I drove westward to Farmington to spend the afternoon with my sister, taking the scenic route through Starks and Industry on my way over and coming back through New Sharon along the Sandy River. It was gray skies and persistent rain, but it was beautiful to see the landscape as the trees are just beginning to unfurl their leaves. It’s my absolute favorite time of year─as a blushing red and green spreads across the forested hills and mountains where before were only bare brown branches reaching up from the craggy landscape. Broad pastures of farmlands stretch out along the Sandy River were so vibrantly green under the dismal sky that is was impossible to view the day as anything less than simply beautiful.

Despite the glory of spring heartening my soul, as I drove along those winding roads admiring the gnarly old trees along the roadside, the fields and the mountains─breathing in the blossoming new growing season─I had to acknowledge that persistent ache within me. The ache which is always present─always longing for a farm of my own, a home, a place to dig in and finally begin the lifelong process of putting down roots. A pain that is─at times─little more than a dull ache, while other days that pain is so acute that every fibre of my being is in agony. On those days my gut is twisted up inside me and if it weren’t for my heart being squeezed up inside my throat I would surely vomit with the pain of longing for my forever farm.

Again and again I reach for that tantalizing dream: a forest of mature-growth and a broad sweeping meadow tucked away from the world high on a hilltop or mountainside, with rock walls outlining the pastures and bisecting the forests a testament to the land’s long farming legacy. The dwelling itself is less important than the parameters for the landscape, but I usually imagine the classic New England farmhouse, dating back at least to the 1800s OR the more rustic log cabin with a stone hearth and a loft. Outbuildings are important to my operation─space to house my hive equipment, space to work on said equipment, and housing for my flock of chickens and the few other critters I would like to co-habitate with. I can do without electricity, but I do require water and a kitchen that will pass the state’s safety inspection for Home Processing. Those are the bare necessities for me and for Runamuk. Additional perks would include plenty of space in the house, a guest cottage or apartment, an established orchard, a stream or farm-pond and a breath-taking view of Maine’s western mountains.

That’s how I intend my story to play out.

Yet again and again I am thwarted. Tripped up on the obstacles in a female farmers’ path─or my timing is off and I’m reaching too soon or too late. In any regard, I am stuck in this limbo of being a land-less farmer. Leasing the only space I can afford on a beginning farmers’ income.

I’ve tried, but it’s next to impossible to find a rental or a lease on land that also offers housing for myself and my children. I’ve had offers, but so far nothing has been right for me, my family, or for Runamuk. I even approached the FSA─again. Now with another year under my belt and Runamuk’s income grown from $2500 in 2015 to $6044 in 2016, proving my business is growing. But it’s not enough yet to consider investment in a property feasible at this time.

It’s not the end of the world. I’m making the most of my situation as life has taught me to do. A new season is underway rife with possibilities and I will seize the opportunities that come my way and make the most of it. On those days when the pain is too great to bear, when those feelings will not be contained or restrained, I practice active gratitude and take life hour by hour, minute by minute if necessary, hanging on to what I have accomplished as a farmer as though for dear life. For even as a land-less farmer I know that my farm is growing and I have had a positive impact on my community through my work. That thought brings me comfort and the strength to keep on down this rocky path.

And if I need more reassurance, I can just sit and watch these girls coming and going and soon I am filled with renewed fervor and dedication! I may be a land-less farmer, but I’m making the most of it.

Stay tuned! Another season is upon us; check back often to see what this farmer is up to!

5 Reasons To Raise Chickens

Chickens are often the first livestock to be added to a homestead and have been laughingly referred to as the gateway livestock. However the benefits of adding a flock of chickens to your backyard, homestead, or beginning farm, are no laughing matter. Chickens bring some serious good ju-ju with them and open the door to a number of opportunities for the sustainably inclined.

5 Five Reasons To Raise Chickens1. Improved soil condition & fertility

For a homesteader or farmer, one of the greatest benefits (aside from egg-production) of keeping chickens is the remarkable improvement to your soil. Wherever chickens go they’re forever scratching and digging as they hunt for food, pooping as they go. The poop is then worked into the soil via that same scratching and digging. Chickens are experts at mixing manure with mulch; they’re gas-free, noise-free tillers (and the noise they do make you won’t mind!), and they do a great job of cleaning up the garden after the growing season is done.

2. Pest and disease prevention

Chickens are natural foragers: they’re always on the hunt for spiders, ticks, beetles, grubs, worms, grasshoppers, etc. They’ll keep the pest population down for your family and your livestock by grazing on weeds and insects; homesteaders and farmers can take advantage of this by rotating chickens on pasture following other livestock to control fly and parasite problems.

3. Increased self-sufficiency & sustainability

raise chickens for sustainability
You can get started with chickens without too much investment.

With a minimal investment in time and money, chickens allow us to operate a closed-loop system for each and every household, homestead, or farm. Through the recycling of food and yard waste, we can keep more waste out of landfills; one city in Belgium even gave their residents chickens in an effort to save money on waste disposal! Not only can we produce our own eggs─but when the chickens begin to age we can put those birds in the freezer for meat and further reduce, possibly even eliminate our dependence on the industrialized food system.

 

4. Knowing how your food was produced

grow your own chicken for food
I keep my birds for 2 years as layers, then in the fall they go to freezer camp and become food to feed my family.

raise chickens for egg productionWhen you raise or grow your own food you have control over exactly what goes into producing that food. You’ll know what went into those eggs─whether it’s organic or non-GMO feed, whether those birds were kept in cages or raised on pasture─and you won’t feel guilty because you’ll know the quality of life your oven-roasted chicken had. You can raise your flock according your own specific priorities and adhere to your own unique principles in the production of your own food.

5. Income for your budding farm-business

raise chickens for farm income
The sales my farm makes from egg-production pays the feed bill for all of the critters on my farm.

If you’re a beginning farmer, or even just a homesteader looking to earn a little money on the side, adding chickens to your operation is a relatively quick and easy way to generate some income. Chickens require a minimal investment since you can house them in all sorts of creative ways to cut costs on infrastructure, and they require very little of your time each day to keep the birds healthy and happy. Many folks like to start with chicks which are cute and fluffy and cost about $3/bird, but if you’re willing to spend a little more money you could get established layers and an immediate source of income.

 

 

 

Open the gate!

Not everyone can grow their own vegetables or raise their own livestock for eggs or meat, but for those who not only have the space and time, but also the inclination to live and work toward a more sustainable lifestyle─chickens are the ideal place to start. Chickens really are the gateway livestock for the simple reason that they are the perfect first step for the new homesteader or beginning farmer. With their low-cost set up and easy maintenance chickens allow the farmer to learn as they grow, becoming comfortable handling livestock and becoming familiar with the ebb and flow of life in tandem with animals and nature. What’s more, in addition to the farm-fresh eggs are the added benefits of soil-conditioning, a ready source of fertilizer, pest and disease prevention, and when the birds have outlived their usefulness they become food for the farmer. Chickens are a no-brainer for the backyard and homestead, and an important cog in a diversified farming operation. I say open that gate!

Do you raise chickens too? What’s your favorite reason to keep them?

 

How to Build a Temporary Chicken Coop for a Maine Winter

Housing for the chickens was a big concern during Runamuk’s Great Farm Move. It had taken a full year to rebuild the Runamuk flock following my divorce, and I was up to nearly 90 birds in varying stages of production when I made the difficult decision to let go of Jim’s property in Starks. As we build up our apiary for honey production, selling eggs at the local farmers’ market has been a crucial stop-gap for Runamuk. Without honey we only have our beeswax soaps and salves available, but the rules of our market dictate that vendors can sell only a percentage of craft-items. So the eggs are important in order for my farm to continue to sell at the farmers’ market.

However, while Jim’s farm offered existing infrastructure─a huge asset in establishing a farm─Paul’s place does not. And with Paul busy trying to make the old mobile home there fit for habitation through the winter, he couldn’t spare the time to construct a coop for the birds. What was I going to do with my chickens?

I briefly considered selling and/or culling the entire flock; with the price of grain, selling eggs at $4 doesn’t really turn a profit. But again, not having eggs at market wasn’t really an option so I decided that it was imperative that at least half the flock make it through the move.

Enter the hoop-coop: a temporary chicken coop structure made from a hoop-house.

temporary-chicken-coop-for-winterWhat is a Hoop-House?

I’m a big fan of the hoop-structures: mini hoop-houses, low-tunnels, chicken tractors, cold-frames, high-tunnels─you name it! These are simple and inexpensive structures typically made up of a wooden frame, hooped EMT or plastic piping, and then covered with heavy greenhouse plastic. In many cases these are heated only by the sun and cooled by the wind.

diy-high-tunnel
Here are some of the high-tunnels at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm in Albion, Maine.
hoop-house-how-to
Quick and dirty seedling hoop-house I made back in 2013 using rebar, PVC and 4mil contractor’s plastic.

A hoop-house allows the gardener or farmer to extend their growing season by 4 to 6 weeks in the spring and the fall, provides protection of crops from increment weather, and offers the ability to grow some superior crops. Here in the northeast many growers prefer to grow heat-loving crops inside their high-tunnels because they can keep more controlled conditions for high-revenue produce like tomatoes, peppers, squashes and melons.

Note: See my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film for more information about this useful tool for gardeners, homesteaders, and farmers!

Check out Runamuk’s Hoop-Coop in this video!

Features and Benefits of this Design

  • Simple construction
  • Can be built with hand-tools
  • Mostly a 1-person job
  • Relatively inexpensive to construct
  • Sheds snow well
  • Versatile structure for multiple uses
  • Space for 30-40 birds*
  • Tall enough to stand/work inside
  • Birds are under sunlight ALL DAY
  • Moveable**
  • Can attach other equipment to the wooden frame.

*The industry standard is 4 square-feet of space per bird, so I can fit 30 birds in this structure. In the winter however, here in Maine’s northern climate, farmers often crowd a few extra birds together for added warmth at night. I’ve had 37 birds in this coop since the move and so long as there has been adequate roosting space they seem to be fine.

This coop is moveable, however it’s rugged enough where most individuals aren’t going to be able to haul it off through the power of just their body. Probably 2-4 people could drag this coop across the ground, but I’m planning to sink some heavy duty eye-bolts into the base of the hoop-coop’s frame, and I could either use a sturdy rope or a tow-chain to hook it onto my Subaru and pull it where I want it─provided I can get my car to the desired location!

Constructing the Hoop-Coop

I constructed my temporary chicken coop in a series of phases; I’m pretty methodical when it comes to construction.

temporary-chicken-coop
I don’t have a truck at the moment, but Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, where you’re at, right now.”

Phase 1:  I spent weeks leading up to the project researching to see what other farmers had done, and talking with my market peeps or colleagues at Johnny’s about the best way to do this. I put together a design that I liked and made up my materials list. Then I took myself off to Home Depot.

Phase 2:  The appointed day dawned and I set up early, putting my sawhorses in place and hauling out all of my equipment and materials. I’m very careful to measure twice before making any cuts, and I almost always pre-drill my screws. The frame of the coop, along with the hoops were all put together within a few hours.

hoop-house-infrastructure-beginning-farmersPhase 3:  I came back another day to put the door on. Framed in the ends and then added chicken wire.

Phase 4: I had to coordinate scheduling with Paul to get the plastic on over the top. Then I put plastic over the chicken wire to close it in for the winter.

putting-plastic-on-hoop-house
Here is the hoop-house chicken coop with plastic on.

Voila! Temporary chicken-coop durable enough to withstand a Maine winter!

For those who might like to construct their own hoop-coop I’ve created Free Chicken Coop Design Download for you! It has step-by-step instructions with plenty of pictures, a materials list with sourcing information. You’re welcome!

Problems Encountered During & Since Project Completion

Too Much Outside Input:

I have a lot of farming-friends and I asked many of them for their input as I was developing the design for my hoop-coop. I had so much advice that it was difficult for me to figure out which plan would work best for me-as a female farmer─and which method would best meet my skill level in construction. Ken and Kamala Hahn deserve special thanks for their input on the design of the hoop-coop; these farming friends even went so far as to send me pictures of their own temporary coop structure to help me formulate a design.

I really wanted to use the EMT metal conduit as they do in the construction of high-tunnels, but my friend Crymson Sullivan (aka – Krim) over at Sidehill Farm in Madison, reminded me that they use carriage bolts on those, and that there’s a lot of drilling and grinding when assembling the metal hoops of a high-tunnel to prevent sharp edges from cutting through the greenhouse film. He steered me in the grey electrical conduit, sharing that he has a buddy who uses the stuff to construct full-size high-tunnels for his operation, and since I already have an affinity for PVC-structures this option was right up my alley! Thanks Crym!

Extra Hands Needed for a Couple of Stages of Construction

Paul was busy finalizing necessities like plumbing in the trailer-homestead and time was of the essence so it was important that I complete this project on my own. I managed the frame and the hoops just fine, but when it came time to affix the supports for the door I found it tricky to put up the door frame alone. I strongly urge you to recruit another pair of hands to hold the 2x4s while you screw the bottom end to the frame of your structure. I did this by myself, but it was difficult to keep the 2×4 straight and upright with just one hand, while attempting to screw the 2×4 in place with the one other hand. The 2×4 wavered─I wavered─and I clonked myself in the head with the 2×4 so hard that I saw stars. Extra hands would have made this part a lot easier, but you don’t have to take my word for it!

Difficult to Protect Plastic From Chicken-Wire

Because this structure was initially intended for chickens I wrapped chicken wire around the lower third of the inside of the coop, and also used it to close in either end. We had to take extra care to cover the sharp ends of the chicken wire to protect the greenhouse film.

predator-proofing-modifications-hoop-house-chicken-coopPredator-Proofing Modifications Needed

One of the downsides to living in a forest of oak trees where nuts are abundant is that rodents are plentiful, and as a result, so are weasels. In hindsight, lining the bottom of the coop with the same 1×2 fencing material that I used for the fencing would have offered better protection from these chicken predators. Or I could have dug a trench all the way around the base of the coop and laid 1/2-inch wire mesh at least 12 inches down. As it was, we lost 3 birds and Paul spent an afternoon digging a deep trench inside the coop so that he could stretch a length of 1×2-inch wire mesh along the wall to keep out a determined weasel.

So far he has not been able to get back into the coop.

Hoop-Coop Does the Job!

egg-production-in-a-hoop-houseThere were a few hiccups along the way, but now that it’s done I’m very happy with my hoop-coop. The Runamuk flock are exposed to sunlight all day─as soon as the sun begins to lighten the sky, til the very end of the day when the darkness grows, my chickens are receiving 100% of the available light. I don’t need to add lights to stimulate their production and since I’m not going to market right now, I’m just allowing them to produce eggs at whatever rate comes naturally.

hoop-house-in-snowWe live in Maine. We experience serious winter conditions here. Just before New Years’ we received 18-inches of snow that put the hoop-coop to the test, followed by another good dose of snow a few days later and so far the coop remains standing there stolidly. It sheds the snow well, and as an added precaution we have a soft-bristled push-broom that we keep in the coop so that we can push up on the center of the coop-ceiling to make the snow slide off. Easy.

chicken-hoop-house
A deep layer of pine shavings and straw, mix with the chicken poo to create a mass of decomposing material that naturally lends heat to the coop.

The coop is warmed by the sun, in addition to the deep-litter bedding method we’re using, which generates additional heat as the decomposition process happens right beneath our feet. Even when it’s freeze-your-face-off cold outside, the chickens are relatively comfortable inside the sanctity of their hoop-coop. We’ve only turned on the heat lamp on the nights when temperatures are well below zero and we’ve had no frozen combs or wattles whatsoever.

Ventilation of the coop was a concern, but simply leaving the door open, or cracked─has (so far) provided sufficient ventilation for the birds and farmers.

A Great Asset

As we get closer to spring I have every intention of putting together another hoop-structure in order to have space for all the seedlings I’ll be growing for the 2017 growing season. The chickens will get moved from their current location and their winter hoop-coop will house my tomato plants this season. I envision yet another hoop-house for growing greens and carrots into the winter─just like Eliot Coleman, but on a smaller scale mainly meant to feed my family.

It cost me $310 to put this coop together. A third of that expense was in the greenhouse film, but I have enough of that left over to create several more such structures. I really see these hoop-structures as the key to the infrastructure issue many beginning farmers are coping with. Quick and easy to put together, with the biggest part of the expense in the tufflite greenhouse film, and able to be used for a wide variety of purposes on the farm or homestead. Cover it with a tarp instead and you’ve got a sheep-shed or a tool-shed. Hell, I’d even consider living in one if it meant I could continue farming!

Hoop-houses are a great asset, but you don’t have to take my word for it! Try it yourself!

Recommended Resources

Sam’s Hoop-Coop Step-by-Step Instructions – complimentary instructions for you to build your own versatile hoop-house structure for use as livestock shelter, growing space, or other creative uses on your farm or homestead.

Tufflite Greenhouse Film: Tuff Stuff! – Check out my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film.

Low-Cost, Versatile Hoop Houses – Mother Earth News

High Tunnels – a great pdf resource from the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Hoophouse & Quick hoops crops – Good information from GrowingforMarket.com listing the types of crops that perform best in hoop-house and season-extension conditions.

Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House – more details about growing crops into the winter in your hoop-house. From Mother Earth News.

Make a Hoop-House to Extend Your Growing Season – via the HomesteadingHippy.com.

2016 Year-End Review

runamuk-apiary-bees-on-a-hive

A full rotation of the Earth around the sun has brought us once again to the end of the calendar year. It’s been a busy year for Runamuk, with some ups and some downs too, and some life altering moments. Before we shift our focus to 2017 and all that the new year may bring our way I’d like to take a moment to review what went well this year on our apiary and farm─and what did not.

Personally

paul-smith-runamuk-apiary
It’s a special kindov guy willing to lend a hand in the apiary!

Right out the gate 2016 brought a budding romance with a former CSA-customer of mine, and looking back on it now I suppose that set the tone for the whole year. Paul was eager to live the homesteader’s life, a more self-sufficient life, and an honest life, and he made up his mind pretty quickly that he wanted to do it with me. On the other hand, I was fresh out of one relationship and my divorce still a raw wound so I was fairly cautious about bringing a new person into my life and onto my farm. We decided on a 1-year trial “apprenticeship”, though Paul has been much more than my apprentice from the very start, lol. Over the course of the year we developed a strong partnership, which I’m confident will serve Runamuk well as we continue to grow the apiary together.

Apiary

runamuk-apiary-bees-on-a-hive
Hot bees hanging outside the hive!

In the apiary 4 out of 5 hives survived the winter of 2015-2016. When statistics indicate beekeepers are losing anywhere from 30 to 37% of their hives each winter, to have just a 20% loss was a big victory for Runamuk. I’ve been eager to grow my apiary, with big plans to expand and spent months last winter working on my business plan. It became apparent pretty quickly though that Runamuk just doesn’t have the kind of numbers that financial institutions want to see when they lend money. That’s one of the downsides to bootstrapping your business I guess.

Farming of any kind is a lot of investment up-front and it can take several years before the farmer starts seeing a return. For first generation farmers like me there’s a steep learning curve and the first years in business tend to involve some stumbling as we learn on-the-job. All this is especially true in beekeeping where all of the investment is in the hive-equipment and the gear you need to manage the bees, and where it can take new beekeepers half a decade to really grasp the intricacies of beekeeping today.

So the realities of the business world hit home for me; afterall, farming is a business just like other businesses. If you can’t show that you’re generating a positive income, even the USDA won’t give you money. Sure there are a number of programs to help beginning farmers or female farmers like me, but they still want to see those positive numbers.

And of course, there was the insecurity of my place there at Jim’s farm, when just 9 months after I signed their lease agreement my landlords decided to sell the property. Brief dealings with the Maine Farmland Trust revealed the bias that exists within the Maine agricultural sector, and the realities of business and money reared their ugly heads to create a road-block that ultimately put that farm out of my reach. This was the life altering moment when I chose to walk away, to say goodbye to a property which was, perhaps, the love of my life, in favor of the lifestyle that I need to live in order to be happy. I will never forget that piece of land, or the way it made me feel to be there, the plans I had to bring that iconic farm back to life, and how much I loved it.

new bees 2016
New honeybee colonies come in these starter-hives called “nucleus colonies” or “nucs”.

Despite that set back we managed to bring 10 nucleus colonies to the apiary this year, in addition we made a number of our own nucs by breaking up one of the four hives that survived the winter. I also caught a swarm and successfully hived it. We went into the 2016 winter with 15 colonies, at last check we’d lost 2 so current count is 13.

This was Runamuk’s second year with no honey crop. Last year, following the brutal winter of 2014-2015 when my hives all died, I brought in 5 nucs and took no honey from those new colonies. This year Maine experienced drought conditions that were pretty severe in some parts of our state; as a result the flowers were not producing much nectar and what little honey the bees made I distributed between the hives to ensure their winter survival. Runamuk customers have been asking for honey and while they were all disappointed by our lack of available honey, most were understanding and patient.

runamuk-beeswax-soap
I made a lot of soap this year!!!

I made more soap than ever before this year and even expanded my soap-line to offer new seasonal fragrances that were only available while supplies last, which was a big hit with Runamuk’s dedicated patrons and shoppers at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Increasing our distribution of Runamuk’s beeswax products had been a big goal for 2016; I managed to put together a store on our website, I listed soaps and salves with The Pick-Up in Skowhegan, and North Star Orchards sold my products in their farm-store too.

With my part-time off-the-farm job in addition to the #greatfarmmove, I found it difficult to maintain the pace and to allocate the time required to keep up with the soaps and salves. I couldn’t dedicate the amount of time necessary to photograph each product and write descriptions for online listings, and to top it off problems with the shipping-program we used on the Runamuk site made our online store unattractive to shoppers. We’ve taken the store off the site for maintenance and intend to have it back early in the new year.

Pollinator Conservation

I feel like this was a big year for my efforts to promote pollinator conservation. I only did a couple of small local presentations over the course of the summer: one with the children of the Solon Summer Rec program, one for the robotics team of the homeschool association at the Crossroads Bible Church in Madison, and one presentation for the folks at Johnny’s. But there was my talk at the Common Ground Fair, that was a pretty big achievement─and then the new beneficial-insect symbol in the Johnny’s catalog that I was fortunate to be part of. These successes have spurred something new and exciting coming to Runamuk; you’ll get that news in an up-coming blog-post so stay tuned!

Homestead, Farm & Garden

For years I’ve been working toward an increasingly self-sufficient diet of unprocessed and conscientiously produced foods. This year Paul and I made some big strides together choosing to eat less meat, and more vegetables, grains and legumes. We’re determined to feed ourselves and have been eating a lot of foods we’ve either grown or raised ourselves, foraged for, or purchased/bartered locally from other farmers we know. I still make a weekly shopping list for Hannaford, but I rarely spend more than $35 there, and that’s usually in the form of butter, coffee, and other staples─you know, like toilet paper─or wine.

grow-your-own-shoots
Field pea shoots on the left and buckwheat shoots on the right. Made us some great salads with some DIY vinaigrette to go with it!
fishing for food
Bass caught in the Sandy River, breaded in cornmeal and pan fried, served on a bed of microgreens, with a slice of buttered sourdough bread.

This year, to feed ourselves we grew our own sprouts and shoots, delved into the complexities of sour-dough baking, we foraged for fiddleheads and ramps, Paul went fishing and we harvested so much asparagus from Jim’s garden that we stank when we peed! We were even able to sell some at the farmers’ market. We grew a great crop of early peas and greens; I fell in love with Cherokee lettuce I grew from seed I got at Johnny’s (check this out!). I planted a big and beautiful garden and sowed 80 pounds of seed potato.

Despite my attempt to choke out the weeds with a first-year cover crop of buckwheat, the quack-grass was undeterred, but I was determined. My dedication to weeding faultered however when I realized I was going to let go my love affair with Jim’s farm. The weeds seized their opportunity and quickly took over the garden.

Lack of rain meant we were trying to irrigate the crops, using both the well and the pond. Paul set up a complex series of hoses and sprinklers, soaker-hoses and pumps, but even still it was a challenge to keep the crops moist in the sandy soil that made up the big garden. It took forever for my carrots to germinate, and then they grew so slowly that I forsake them; Paul pulled up a few slender carrots and a number of thumb-sized nubs on moving day.

Onions didn’t want to grow, my squash patch suffered, and though we grew some beautiful tomato plants with manure procured from friends at Willow Lane Farm in Harmony, we experienced an acute case of blossom end-rot that affected nearly the entire crop. We did however manage to get a harvest of early maturing potatoes: our Red Norlands did very well, and we had some Adirondack Blue and strawberry paw potatoes too. I had a third of my garden planted in potatoes, and half of the potato patch was dedicated to Kennebec potatoes for winter storage. Because they’re a late-maturing variety they suffered more from the drought and weed-pressure. I also ran out of time to harvest due to the move.

learning to butcher rabbit
Here I am beginning to skin and gut my first meat-rabbit!

Paul brought bunnies to the farm and I attended a workshop at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison to learn how to process the meat-rabbits when the time comes. I kept a pair of rabbits in the garden for the summer, but never managed to construct the rabbit-tractor I wanted for the other pair of bunnies so I wound up rotating the rabbits between the barn and the one outdoor crate.

This year I finally went to the Maine Artisan Bread Fair that’s been held annually at the Skowhegan Fair Grounds for 10 years now. I brought home the abandoned kitten, and 30 more chicks for egg-production. Later in the fall, with help from Ernie and Gwen Hilton─good friends and dedicated supporters to Runamuk (and me), who live and farm at Hyl-Tun Farm just a mile up the road from where I was at Jim’s there in Starks─we sent 30 birds to freezer-camp: theirs and mine.

Storing the food we’d produced became another issue─especially once we’d made the move from Jim’s big old farmhouse where there was plenty of space, to Paul’s small mobile home. We’re making the best of it and have stashed the freezer full of food, the boxes of potatoes, and the bin of garlic, in the back bedroom as far away from the woodstove as possible, with the pumpkins and squashes lined up along the floor at the base of the wall.

Blog & Writing

Including this post, I’ve written 15 articles on a variety of topics from beekeeping and what kind of plants are good to grow for pollinators, to the broken food system and what resources peeps at Johnny’s Selected Seeds recommend for beginning farmers. I wrote 34 updates chronicling my journey as a beginning farmer and beekeeper here in Maine. This post will round 2016 out with a total of 50 pieces of writing.

Of course the big news regarding the Runamuk blog and my writing is our new relationship with Johnny’s as our blog-sponsor. Hooray for Johnny’s! I’m hoping to be able to bring on several more sponsors in 2017 for the chance to promote some great local─and green─Maine businesses.

Somerset Beekeepers’

Before the divorce my husband worked off-the-farm and supported our household, while I labored in the garden, with the bees or with goats or children (which often are much more difficult than goats OR bees!); I had a lot more time then for volunteer-work. Since the divorce I’ve been working either full or part-time off-the-farm, all while continuing to farm, keep bees, and homestead. Honestly it’s been more of a struggle to keep up with everything these last couple of years. After 5 years serving as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers, our county’s chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association, I finally stepped down. Unfortunately our group had fizzled and we were no longer seeing the attendance we once did. When I stepped down no one else stepped up to lead the group and the Somerset Beekeepers, sadly enough, has disbanded.

That being said, I’ve left myself available to the UME Somerset County Cooperative Extension as a beekeeping liaison of sorts, in the event the community should have need of me. It’s a good thing I did too! Round about August there was a gentleman beekeeper out in Embden who was working with his bees when he was overtaken suddenly by an allergic reaction to the bee stings. He was taken to the emergency room and his hives were left uncovered, the bees exposed to the elements. This gentleman’s daughter called the extension office, who in turn called me; so Paul and I drove over to Embden to close his hives for him.

Madison Farmers’ Market

ebt-at-madison-farmers-market
This was the second year we’ve accepted EBT at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

This was the second year that our local farmers’ market was able to accept EBT transactions from SNAP shoppers. We were able to draw in many new shoppers thanks to our participation in the Maine Harvest Buck’s program. Funding we received from the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets enabled the Madison market to give a dollar-for-dollar bonus to customers who purchased food items using their EBT. So if a SNAP shopper spent $20 at the market they received $20 worth of Harvest Bucks vouchers that could be used at any point throughout the season for the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

In Madison there was a new local food ordinance passed which opened up new opportunities for farmers growing and selling food there. Our market supported this movement, however we’re also cautious of it and have discussed at length how this impacts the market and how we want it to apply to farmers selling food at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Above all else we want to be offering fresh, locally produced food that is safe for our friends, families, and communities to eat; all of Madison’s farmers strive to meet the regulations outlined by the authorities for all of the food and products we sell.

sonia-playing-at-market
Sonia, of Hide & Go Peep Farm plays the fiddle at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

We had a hellova time with the company who processes our transactions at market. Last year we enrolled in the USDA’s flagship program to be able to accept EBT at the market; we received the equipment and first year of processing free in exchange for a 3-yr contract with a company called WorldPay who would process those electronic transactions for us. We were supposed to have a reduced fee this year, and then next year the market would pay the full sum for the service provided.

Regrettably, WorldPay was impossible to work with: I would call to make changes to our account so that the market could receive payment for the transactions we were processing at-market, wait on hold for 40 minutes before finally getting a representative, then I’d jump through hoops trying to get them the paperwork they wanted, but the changes were never implemented. One day I was on the phone all day going back and forth with WorldPay when I should have been outside working my bees. It was a nightmare.

After repeated attempts to resolve the issue we finally opted to cancel our account with WorldPay. We never received payment for any of the transactions processed at-market this season, and I wound up having to pay my farmers for those EBT and credit card sales out of market-funds. The WorldPay fiasco put our farmers’ market more than $500 in the red this year. Currently I’m working to get a new system in place before the start of the 2017 market-season.

It was difficult for me to keep up even with my work for the farmers’ market while I’m working off-the-farm, but after letting go of the Somerset Beekeepers I was all the more determined to hang on to the market. I did my best to prioritize and put the Harvest Bucks program first and foremost in my list of duties, but managing of meetings, recordkeeping, and promotion of the market and special events suffered some this year. Thankfully the farmers that make up our market have all become close friends and they’ve been understanding and supportive over the last 2 years.

Overall the farmers at the Madison Farmers’ Market dubbed the season a success. They were pleased with the increase in traffic we saw as a result of the Harvest Bucks program. We were able to extend our market into December thanks to an alliance with the Somerset Abbey that allows us to be inside every other Sunday from November til Christmas. We’re all looking forward to the new year and the coming season.

Biggest Lessons Learned

  1. Recordkeeping is as crucial to farming as is planting the seed that grows the crop. Get organized and make the time to document your work, your expenses, and your sales (income).
  2. You need good numbers to get any kind of financing or funding─as in positive income. In farming it’s important to have an instant source of income while your long-term crops mature: that’s why many farmers produce annual vegetables when they first start out.
  3. Owning the land you farm on is the most secure option for farmers. Do whatever it takes to make that happen: improve your credit score, look for a lease-to-own option, reduce your expectations and look at ugly-duckling properties which are typically more affordable. Land-insecurity in farming is hugely detrimental to your business, and leases not geared toward agricultural activity can be your downfall.
  4. Business is business. Farming is a business just any other; take it seriously or no one will take you seriously. When it comes to such crucial matters as land-leases that make up the very foundation of your farm, assume nothing─be sure to cover all details and get it in writing before committing.

Closing the Door on 2016

runamuk-laying-hens
More chicks this year to meet the demand for farm-fresh eggs at market.

I feel like this fall, over the course of the encroaching winter, I’ve examined my life and  let go of a lot of old baggage. I’ve closed the door on one chapter and I’m really looking forward to this new phase as I continue to grow my apiary and farm here in Norridgewock with Paul. What you’ve been reading here is just one woman’s story in the pursuit to generate her income through farming─the farming of bees, no less. I am not unique in the obstacles I’ve faced; land-access and lack of capital are 2 of the biggest challenges beginning farmers have to overcome if they are to succeed. Any individual determined to bootstrap their way to success in farming is going to have similar stories, and not all of us will make it. Some will give up.

But I am still here. Bring on 2017!