Talking pollinators at the Common Ground Fair

At 2pm on Saturday, September 24th I will be in Unity at MOFGA’s annual Common Ground Fair to give a talk Ive dubbed “Pollinator Conservation through Agriculture”. *Insert excited squeal here.*

pollinator conservation at common ground fairThere’s a decided interest from the public in pollinators, I’m excited to be able to say. You see it in the news, in the increasing numbers of backyard-beekeepers, at your local garden center, and we see it in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The representatives who answer the phone there are getting more calls every year from gardeners and farmers wanting to grow plants for pollinators. People want to help, they want to raise pollinator-friendly plants that offer food and habitat for bees, and they want to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning to bees.

I’m sure the fact that I’m a bee-nut was not the main reason Johnny’s hired me, lol. That was just an added bonus─or a peculiarity they decided was worth tolerating. Lol, I think I’ve grown on them though, they asked me to represent the company by giving a presentation at the Common Ground Fair. Can you believe it?!

Actually I think when Amy LeClaire first mentioned it to me I was horrified and flabbergasted: “But what will I talk about!?” This is a different scale of audience then the Somerset County 4H and the Madison or East Madison Grange. It’s not the Solon Summer Rec Program or the kindergarten class at the Carrabec Community School in North Anson. We’re talking about the Common Ground Fair─the fair of fairs, a revelry for sustainable living, a festival to pay homage to Maine’s agricultural roots.

Amy looked at me patiently, spreading her hands out before her as if the answer should be obvious and said, “Bees?”

Of course! Duh! So I dubiously said yes, I’d do it, and set about revamping one of my favorite presentations about pollinator conservation.

pollinator conservation through agriculture
Monarch butterflies are becoming more rare, but we had one at Runamuk this season.

This presentation first covers why bees and pollinators are in peril, and then discusses specific actions gardeners and farmers can take to benefit and even increase their local populations of pollinators. All of the information I present is garnered from credible sources such as the Xerces Society, the Pollinator Partnership, the NRCS, and more. I’ll throw in some personal anecdotes of my beekeeping misadventures along the way just to keep things interesting. Along with my presentation I’ll have lots of handouts available, as well as book and website recommendations for further learning.

It’s been 7 years since my first hive─when I was suddenly overcome by this fascination with pollinators. Come spend an hour with me, let me share with you my love for bees, and learn what you can do to support local pollinators in your backyard, in the garden or on the farm.

Mark your calendars or fair guides:

Pollinator Conservation Through Agriculture
Saturday, September 24th – 2pm at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair in Unity, ME
Railcar Speakers’ Tent

Porcupine on the farm

problems with porcupine on the homestead

We have a bit of a problem on our farm. A porcupine problem–to be specific. With an overabundant population they’re devastating the trees of our forest and repeatedly coming into contact with our dogs. But what can you do about porcupine problems on your homestead or farm?

problems with porcupine on the farmDisclaimer: This post contains images that may be too graphic for some readers, please be advised.

Problems with porcupine

When we moved out of town and onto the property last winter we fully expected that the dogs would occasionally encounter a porcupine. We’ve had some selective cutting done on the property to improve the health of the forest and the forester told us that we had an overabundant population of porcupine here. In fact–we have so many that they’re putting the health of our forest at risk. So we knew that there are lots of the prickly little beasts out here.

trouble with porcupine on the homestead
Poor Willow with a muzzle of quills as we wait for the veterinarian’s office to open.

Still–we weren’t prepared for that first night that Ava came home with a handful of quills in her muzzle. I felt awful! I felt so bad that our dog was in pain, and ashamed that we let her run loose, allowing her to encounter a porcupine.

Of course that’s what the dogs want–roaming the farm, protecting the property–it’s how they’re happiest. And it’s what we have them for–you know-apart from their loving companionship.

Keith’s dog Ava was a beagle-jack russle terrier cross and about the size of jack russle (she had the terrier’s energy, and the beagle’s howling bark–it was a great combination, if you catch my drift), so she was small and we could easily handle her and remove the half-dozen offending quills.

Little Ava died this summer–killed by the local fox. We still miss her terribly. Read more about Ava here.

It wasn’t long after that when my girl Willow turned up on the front steps early one morning with a nose full of quills. Then the new puppy, Teyla (pronounced: “Tay-lah”) came in one night looking more like a pin-cushion than a dog, two weeks ago Willow came in again with a nose and mouth full of quills, and then last week both the dogs came in with quills.

We’ve spent more than $800 on quill-removal this summer.

About the porcupine

Have you ever seen a porcupine up close? They’re incredibly cute! We love wildlife–even porcupines.

These creatures are herbivorous with a diet that depends on the season–in the summer porcupines will eat shrubs, crops, wildflowers, clover, leaves and acorns, tender twigs, roots, seeds and buds; while in the winter they’ll eat needles and tree bark, and will dine on hemlock, birch, beech, aspen (which is known as “popple” or “poplar” here in Maine), elm, oak, pine, willow, spruce and fir.

Also referred to as the “quill-pig”, porcupines are actually a rodent–the 3rd largest of all the rodents–grow to be 18 to 23-inches long and can weigh up to 28-pounds. With 30,000 quills covering their back, sides, and tails, they can resemble a little armored ball moving slowly through the forest.

dealing with porcupine on the farmThey are primarily nocturnal animals and make their dens in hollow trees or beneath downed logs, under a rock ledge or in the abandoned burrow of another animal.

Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot “throw” their quills–the animal has to actually come into contact with the porcupine for this defensive measure to be effective. Nevertheless, it is an extremely effective defense, and very few animals have figured out the secret to eating porcupines. Those that have discovered that flipping the porcupine over to get at it’s tender belly include fishers, wolverines, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, bears, mountain lions, golden eagles, and the great horned owl.

As humanity continues to expand it’s population local wildlife populations continue to be affected, which means that ecosystems are thrown out of balance.

In our area in particular, many of the porcupine’s predators have been pushed out of this habitat. We no longer see wolverines, wolves, or mountain lions. Locals speculate whether or not the fisher and bobcat still reside in some of the more remote areas of the region, and black bears, coyotes, and the great horned owl are significantly reduced in numbers here.

All this results in the porcupine population becoming out of balance, as we are now seeing.

Warning: Graphic images below.

What can you do about porcupines?

Dogs are not the only animals at-risk of porcupine encounters on the farm or homestead. Horses, donkeys, cows, and more, can all come into contact with a quill-pig. I am by no means an expert–so when we began to have problems with porcupines here at Runamuk we turned to those whom we knew would have the answers. Below are a few suggestions based on our experiences this summer.

Talk to a forester, biologist, or game warden.

Find out more about the porcupine population in your area. Some states don’t have such an abundance as we have here in Maine, and in some states porcupines may be rare and even protected. If you live in an area with a healthy or overabundant population, it’s a good idea to walk the property with one of these “experts” to see how the porcupine population is affecting your property specifically.

what to do with porcupineLook up state regulations

If you contact your local game warden about your porcupine population and determine that you do in fact have a problem, you can ask him or her at the same time about the laws regarding hunting or trapping porcupine. Here in Maine–as it turns out–there is no closed season and no bag-limit on porcupine; you can find more details about Maine hunting regulations here.

Have a good local veterinarian

Many veterinarian services offer after-hours emergency vet-care. It’s a good idea to keep their number handy and know their policies regarding emergency vet service. For example–our local veterinarian requires that pets be a current patient to receive emergency care; all the more reason to make sure your pets have been seen by the vet and are up-to-date on their shots. If your vet does not offer emergency care, find out where the nearest emergency animal hospital is and add their number to your address book.

Do NOT try to relocate wild animals

It’s a popular misconception that troublesome critters can simply be trapped and relocated. This may be the simplest course of action for the homesteader or farmer, but it can be disastrous for the animal. Relocation can be stressful–putting the creature at risk for disease or predation. The relocated animals have no prior knowledge of this new home, which is a huge disadvantage in finding food and shelter. What’s more, they lack the knowledge of existing animal hierarchies and may even spread disease. For more details about relocating wildlife check out this article from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Learn to tolerate wildlife

Humanity relies on the biodiversity of our planet for our own sustainability. Whether we appreciate it or not, we can set off a whole chain of events when we attempt to alter nature and Her natural patterns. Every creature plays an important role on our planet and that’s why it’s important to learn tolerance for wildlife and–even if we may not appreciate a particular creature–accept that it is an important part of life on Earth just the same. And so I accept too that occasionally one of the dogs are going to come home stuck with porcupine quills, it is a part of life in rural Maine.

Hook your dogs at night

Willow really loathes being hooked or leashed at all, but with so many porcupines causing so much trouble for us this year, we’ve taken to hooking the dogs at night. It may not eliminate the problem altogether, but since porcupines are primarily nocturnal creatures, hooking the dogs will significantly reduce quilling incidents and save us from making such frequent trips to the veterinarian’s office.

Porcupine stew

We know that we have far too many porcupine for our ecosystem to sustain here at Runamuk, and since there is no closed season for hunting porcupine Keith borrowed a .22 rifle from his father. So far his porcupine hunts have been instigated by the dogs’ porcupine encounters and he’s killed 3, but with this most recent incident he has begun to take a more pro-active stance on porcupine hunting.

Note: Keith suggests that if you’re going to attempt to skin a porcupine, ensure that you have a pair of thick gloves to prevent getting stuck with the quills in the process.

how to make porcupine stewOnce we’ve killed the animal, we’re not going to waste it–and so we’ve had 3 porcupine dinners this summer. But how to you cook porcupine???

I had to look it up online for the answer–and most results said to roast it in the oven with root vegetables like potatoes and carrots. So I did. And that was the chewiest meat I’ve ever tasted. Keith wouldn’t even eat it because it still looked too much like a porcupine, and because–having been raised on meat from the grocery store–we’re still adjusting to butchering our own. There’s an element of self-doubt that comes with acquiring these new skills, you’re wondering if you did it right, worrying about what could happen if you did it wrong. But the kids exclaimed with gusto that it was “the best porcupine they’d ever tasted!”

The second one I stewed as you would an old hen or a gamey rooster, and that was delicious. The flavor and texture of the meat was something of a cross between roast beef and rabbit, with that distinctive gamey flavor. I seasoned it with rosemary, sage, salt and pepper–a bay leaf would have been good too.

I was so proud of that stew! Made almost entirely with ingredients grown on this farm–carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic–and, of course, the porcupine. The only ingredients not from the farm were the vegetable stock I boiled the porcupine in (to save time I used some I’d purchased at the grocery store), and the celery, which I have yet to master growing.

Practicing good stewardship

So that’s what we’re doing about our porcupine troubles here at Runamuk. We have a pretty high tolerance for animal-interactions anyway, since we’re so passionate about nature and wildlife. Yet maintaining proper biodiversity of all the species in this habitat is our responsibility as stewards of this land, so until such time as the porcupine population is reduced to a level that the forest can maintain, we will continue to hunt them. And because we are loathe to squander the animal’s life–we will eat them, feeding our family so that we may continue our work here–reclaiming this old farm.

Have you had trouble with porcupine? Got tips about cooking them? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

 

Take action this Earth Day

the earth from space
Photo credit: fotopedia.com

At Runamuk Earth Day is a big event.  Any significant event celebrating nature is a big event here because we make it so, the Winter Solstice, Mid-Summer’s Eve, the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes, Arbor Day, Pollinator Week, Compost Awareness Week, just to name a few.  Keith and I are both nature lovers, passionate about embracing nature, preserving and protecting life, and our goal is to foster that love in our children in hopes that they will grow up to value this Earth, and be good stewards of the land. Read more

Unschooling at the Runamuk Homestead

hard at workOur youngest son “Summer” is never more content than when he his hard at work fixing something, and while the Runamuk truck is down for maintenance, Keith thought it the perfect time to include Summer in the repairs.  This is the rear axle that they are tinkering on. Read more

NOT-going-back-to-school

My boys are happy to be able to stay home, and I am more than happy to oblige.

We’ve been discussing what they’d like to learn more about this year, things that we all need to work on to improve ourselves, and fun, new things we’d like to try.

That’s how we do things here–we explore things that fascinate us, pursue interests that we are curious about, and I always encourage my family to never stop trying to be the person they really want to be. Read more

Owls at the Library

On Tuesday the boys and I went to the Madison Public Library to participate in the second session of their Summer Reading program.  They’ve put together a really great line-up this year, which includes craft-sessions, a balloon demonstration–and a presentation called “Owls of Maine”.  Winter has long been fascinated by owls–all animals really, but a special interest in owls, so of coarse we had to attend and listen to Jessica from the Chewonki Traveling Natural History Program tell us more about the owls who live in Maine. Read more

Homeschooling Adventures

On Friday I loaded my boys into the Runamuk-truck and we ventured over to New Sharon for some goat manure.  Two older women manage the 80-something goats and their farm, and for $10 will use their tractor to load your truck with manure.

The boys had a blast petting the goats while we waited–the tractor needed a boost to get going after all the damp weather we’ve been having.  One of the farmers kept us company, and Winter and Summer asked questions about the goats and the farm, then we watched as the other woman–a spry, white-haired lady used the tractor to load the truck.  I paid the ladies, then we drove home with our truckload of poo. Read more

Why Runamuk Acres?

I’ve had a number of people ask me about my choice in name for our farm-business.

It always makes me laugh at myself to have to explain the reasons behind the Runamuk logo.  First, there are my kids.  Some people would say “They can’t be that bad!”  And they’re right–my boys are not bad at all.  But they are high-spirited children who have never had to conform to the standards society imposes upon us through institutionalized schooling. Because we have chosen to homeschool our children, they have developed into these amazing free-spirits, and I love that about them. Read more

Wildlife in the backyard

maine moose

A large part of our plan for the Runamuk farm revolve around wildlife.  In our home we love to watch the wildlife in our backyard: birds, bats, squirrels, butterflies and other insects–and so we garden with animals in mind.  After we’ve moved into our new home, I’m looking forward to increasing our efforts to invite nature to share our space.  We’ve been limited thus far because the property we live on is not our own, but soon that will all change–and we welcome it.

Meet the Needs of Wildlife

Natural habitats in many areas are already lost to urban sprawl, commercial development, and industries like logging and farming.  As a result animal populations are declining worldwide.  Recently, scientists have noticed a 40% drop in the numbers of migrating birds, and it is estimated that 30% of frog species are in trouble.  But we can help with the naturalization of our backyards.

tufted tit-mouseWild creatures have four basic needs: food, water, cover, and nesting sites.

Technically we have all of those things at our present location and so we have been able to enjoy wildlife despite being in-town.  We offer food by leaving the sunflowers in the gardens after the season has ended, there are also numerous berry-bearing shrubbery surrounding the property, as well some blueberries that were left behind after we picked over the bushes.

There is lots of brushy undergrowth about this property too, so that offers the animals cover and protection.  Some older trees with dead branches provide habitat for rearing young, as do tall grasses left uncut.

We don’t have a water source directly in the yard, but Getchell Stream and the Kennebec River are both within a stone’s throw from the house.

And  gardening without the use of harsh chemical pesticides and fertilizers protects the health of the animals, ensuring that there will continue to be a thriving ecosystem in our backyard.

Enjoy and Learn More About Wildlife

mated pair of tufted tit-micetufted tit-mouse and sunflowerSome of our favorite homeschool activities have been based around our own backyard.  We’ve participated in the Audubon’s annual Backyard Bird Count, and this summer we took part in a firefly count.  The boys have learned so much from the garden, composting, and beekeeping–about insects and plant production and ecology in general.  We all share this love for nature, and at Runamuk Acres I intend to capitalize on this.

We will have a large meadow left wild for the native populous.  The grasses and weeds and wildflowers will grow up, providing habitat for insects like beetles, pollinators like bumblebees, sweat bees, wasps, butterflies, and so much more.  Birds will love the meadow, and maybe–depending on our location–we will see some deer.

Our ideal homestead will have lots of native trees and shrubs, a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees, as well as some berry-bearing trees and shrubs like the Maine-native choke-cherry, serviceberry types, and honeysuckle.  If these are not present I am prepared to plant some myself.

It would be wonderful to have a little stream running through the property, though I haven’t much hope of actually acquiring a property like that, so I will likely end up establishing some sort of water feature for the wildlife that frequents our backyard.

Keith is looking forward to constructing nesting boxes of a variety of types in his workshop–since different bird species require varying nesting conditions.  Basically we’d like to have at least one of everything–bluebird house, wren house, owl house, etc. and don’t forget the bat-house, native pollinator habitats, etc.  It will take some time to establish them all, but it will make for an amazing variety of wildlife when finished.

A picnic table in the shade at the edge of the meadow will make an attractive spot for farm-visitors.  We can use the wildlife meadow as a teaching tool with other homeschoolers and to promote agritourism, as well as for our own enjoyment.

To learn more about how you can invite wildlife into your backyard, whether you’re in-town or in a more rural location, check out these links:

How to Create a Wildlife Friendly Habitat – from the National Wildlife Federation.

Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard – a nice resource from the Missouri Conservation Dept which offers a nice planning guide for creating your backyard wildlife sanctuary.

Backyard Basics for a Wild Life Style – from Defenders of Wildlife; offers some nice tips and even more resources.

Wildlife Gaining Ground – a PDF resource from the Earthvalues Institute.

Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscapes – a publication from the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension; supplies a nice reference chart on native perennials for Mainers.