Confession #2: Conservation Contract

conservation contract

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

Over My Head

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

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

farm-finance struggle
I love Brene Brown!!!

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

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

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

Hope to Hold Onto

fsa conservation contract
USDA Service Center for Somerset County.

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

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

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

Chapter 7

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

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

What is a Conservation Contract?

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

Debt for Nature Conservation Contract
BraeTek at 13.

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

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

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

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

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

Determining Eligibility

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

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

conservation easement
Runamuk’s conservation acreage.

Eligible lands for contract include:

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

Site Inspection

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

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

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

Site A

conservation agriculture
Runamuk’s enchanting little wetland habitat.

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

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

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

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

A Little About Mussels

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Site A…

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

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

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

Site B

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

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

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

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

How Do You Do It?

runamuk acres conservation farm
Your friendly neighborhood farmer.

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

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

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

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

Thank you for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest posts directly to your inbox; OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

4 thoughts on “Confession #2: Conservation Contract

  1. So proud of all you have accomplished……I remember your tenacity during your teen years when you worked at the Woodsman…you certainly have overcome many adversaries. God Bless

    1. Thank you Diane!!! The Woodsman was the start of my epic journey! Thank you so much for that, for being a hardworking woman and providing young women like myself with a good role model! Much love to you!

  2. This is an inspiring story about your resilience in achieving your vision for Runamuk! It is wonderful to see your success! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you very much, Gwen! I’m sure I wouldn’t be here today without the help you and Ernie offered along the way.🥰

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