In spite of ongoing winter preparations, I allowed myself to be lured away from the farm for MOFGA’s Farmer-to-Farmer Conference this past weekend. This was the first time the conference had been so far north, and a scholarship provided by the Greater Franklin Food Council made it possible for me to attend. I felt a little like Cinderella at the ball, but what a great experience and I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity. So, go get yourself a cuppa and I’ll pour the tea… (Does anyone else picture the Matchmaker from Disney’s animated version of Mulan when they read that…?)
When you live and farm in Maine, winter preparations are almost as intense as the growing season itself. Since late-August and early-September I have been plugging away at my list of projects to make Runamuk ready for the cold and snowy season ahead. I’ve made steady progress─check it out:
Completed Winter Projects:
- Chicken coop is mucked and closed in.
- Beebe and her house have been brought off the field.
- The garage has been cleaned and organized so the snowblower is accessible.
- Winterized the campsite in the Hack-Grove (involves putting the picnic table on cement blocks and wrapping the table in a tarp, collecting the equipment there that we’ve provided for tent-campers.).
- Barn is reasonably clean and organized.
- Chest freezer has been emptied, defrosted and cleaned to make ready for the lamb-harvest.
- Clutter has been removed from the house to make ready for a winter spent inside. Sent to donation or dump.
- Irrigation, tools, equipment and fencing has been collected from the field and gardens and properly stowed.
- Winter-Ram Pen Modifications: went to move the truck-cap shelter for mucking and wound up with an unplanned building project added to the list.
- Fences for our winter sheep-pens had to be modified.
- Garlic has been planted.
- Chicken-wire stapled to barn-ramp as slip-guard.
- Sheep pulled off field.
- Remaining fences and summer sheep-shelters removed from field and neatly put away.
- Finish closing in the new winter ram-shed.
- Muck the winter ewe-shed (currently a work-in-progress).
- Plastic windows and doors.
- Build a second chicken-roost.
- Create PVC dispensers for chicken supplements.
- Repair/improve sheep supplement dispensers.
- Snowblower maintenance.
- Pull fences from around fruit trees and wrap tree bases with copper mesh. Mulch if time/weather allows.
- Construct hay-manger for rams.
It’s down to the wire now and I still have a lot to do.
Finances continue to be another on-going issue. I don’t really like discussing my finances. I feel like that’s a very private matter for any household. Personally, I think it’s incredibly rude to ask about someone else’s finances, yet I get that question a lot. For those reading who might be inspired to follow a similar path, I don’t want to mislead you in any way. My financial situation is─and, if I’m being honest, it really has always been─rather precarious.
There have been times when my bills were caught up and I had a few dollars to play with. Mostly though, my farming journey has been a hard scrabble that has found me juggling bills to keep utilities on and animals fed. I’m always one calamity away from the collapse of my house of cards.
Growing up, my family was a low-income household, and as an adult I’ve always fallen in that same income bracket. When you spend your life this way, you become accustomed to going without. You’ll tolerate more hardship than some folks can even conceive of… I buy my clothes from the thrift-stores and not very often. I stick to the list when I go shopping and always watch for sales and discounts. I don’t spend money on fru-fru extras, and I don’t panic when my bank account drops in the negative.
Does that make me unsuccessful as a farmer or business-person?
Maybe, but then again, maybe not… I came across something recently that said “success is just holding on long after others would have let go”. From that perspective, I am certainly successful because somehow I am still here, and I am still doing this work that I absolutely love. How many people can say they wake up eager for each new day and the work it brings? For that blessing alone, I will gladly do without the fru-fru and endure the financial stress of disconnection notices and over-due tax bills.
The Farmer-to-Farmer Conference
In the midst of my on-going winter preparations came this scholarship opportunity for the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference. Offered to area farmers by the Greater Franklin Food Council to cover the cost of admission and meals at the conference. Technically, Runamuk is located in Somerset County, but I am so close to the county line and serving Franklin County communities, that the GFFC has adopted me, lol.
Absently, and without much hope or expectation, I filled out the application, submitted it–and promptly forgot about it. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Erica from Rustic Roots Farm in Farmington emailed to inform me that I’d been selected as a recipient.
For as long as I have been farming, I have wanted to attend MOFGA’s conference. Historically, however, the FFC has been held in the southern and coastal part of the state. It was too far away and too expensive a venture for this bootstrap farmer from western Maine. This year, however, due to some issue with their original venue, the conference was being held at Sugarloaf─practically in my own backyard. Then the scholarship came through and it was a done deal. I was finally going to the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference!
MOFGA, if you are not familiar with it, is the Maine Organic Farmers’ and Gardeners’ Association. It’s the oldest and largest organic organization in the nation at 52. Every year for the last 33 years they’ve put on this Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, attracting farmers and gardeners from across the state of Maine and the northeast. They recruit speakers and presenters from all over the nation, providing an opportunity for producers to learn from experts on a spectrum of topics related to agriculture. The FFC provides a venue where farmers in all stages of their journey, from the newbie apprentice to the silver-haired lifer, can ask whatever burning questions they might have, share their experiences good and bad, and glean knowledge from a community of their peers. It’s a chance for farmers to break bread together, socialize, commiserate and celebrate.
I was stoked when I left the farm early Sunday morning─elated really. The drive from the farm to Sugarloaf is a pleasure drive for yours truly. It’s one of my favorite trips to make, with breathtaking views of my beloved mountains round every turn. From the farm in New Portland, route 16 carries you up into Kingfield. There, you crest a high hilltop and behold an awe-inspiring view of the looming Mt Abraham. Spaulding and Reddington Mountains are tucked just behind and beyond it, with Sugarloaf off in the distance. The village of Kingfield lays spread out on either side of the Carrabasset River in the valley below.
In Kingfield, 16 merges with route 27 to carry the traveler along twists and turns as the road follows the river up through Carrabassett Valley. High hills rise up on either side, and Maine’s vast wilderness crowds the road. Then, as you’re gaining on the hamlet of Carrabassett Valley, you round a curve and there you catch your first glimpse of those rugged, rocky ridges of Bigelow Mountain.
Oh! How I love that mountain!
All of these mountains are special to me. I’ve never wanted to live anywhere except right here. But Bigelow─more than any of the others─has captured my heart. I can sit for hours just drinking in the soght of her on the horizon: smokey-blue or slate-gray depending on the day. Or lilac-purple at sunset. I love the size and shape of the mountain, with it’s multiple peaks. I love the way she looks up close─all rocky and craigy─austere and gracefully beautiful at the same time. And I especially love the story of how she was saved from development by the Friends of Bigelow campaign back in the 70’s.
Rounding corner after corner as you drive up into the Valley, you get these tantalizing glimpses of different parts of Bigelow. Here: you see Little Bigelow, the eastern slope of the mountain. There: you catch a look at the Horn. Until, finally, you reach Carrabassett Valley and the terrain levels out. The wilderness has been cut back to make room for the little community and there─in all her glory─is Mount Bigelow.
Be still my heart!!
The view passes quickly as you truck on, gaining in elevation now. The S-curves lead you onward to Sugarloaf, with Stratton and Eustis beyond. Treacherous in the winter, these curves see a good many accidents every year. On this particular Sunday, however, the weather was absolutely beautiful for an early November day.
At “Oh-My-Gosh Corner” you get your first look at Sugarloaf.
I’m sure there are a good many people who look at that view of Sugarloaf and are awed and inspired by it. Yet, seeing that mountain carved up with ski-trails and crowded with cookie-cutter condos saddens me. Having worked at Sugarloaf on two separate occasions, I am well aware of the sort of mentality and culture the resort fosters. Personally, I am not a fan. At all.
Over the years, the ski resort has been owned by a number of different owners─corporations with the goal of capitalizing on the mountain and the region’s resources. These are not the eco-conscious, earth-friendly sort of companies. Everything on “The Mountain” (as locals refer to it) is disposable. Including it’s employees.
There are some good people working on the mountain─I know a few of them myself. However, the ones I worked with/for during my time there were the worst sorts of back-biting, manipulating people I’ve ever chanced to worked with. Many of the guests are condescending elitists who seem to have no issue with the sort of wasteful and hurtful behavior that goes on there. It is not the sort of place for an earth-first, tree-hugging farmer, and both experiences left me feeling used and abused–scoured raw like a carrot on a citrus-zester.
Really, the only good thing I have to say about Sugarloaf is that it’s existence saved my beloved Bigelow from being turned into that sort of monstrosity.
When I look at these two mountains sitting opposite each other with a valley, river and route 27 between them, I see this blatant juxtaposition that so perfectly symbolizes the crux of environmental conservation. On the one side, you have this pristine ecologic preserve encompassing Bigelow Mountain and 36,000 acres of wilderness. On the otherside, Sugarloaf with it’s culture of excess and an indoctrination into a twisted system fated to bring about it’s own demise, for it is neither healthy (for the human or the landscape), nor is it sustainable.
It was a bummer, but not a surprise to me when I learned that Sugarloaf had been unwilling to work with MOFGA to provide the kind of fare that they are accustomed to serving at the FCC. In addition to being this educational event, the FCC is widely renown for it’s amazing farm-to-table cuisine. We’re talking about an event created by farmers─for farmers. These are people who know food inside and out─from start to finish─so we’re a tough crowd.
In the past MOFGA has been able to work with venue chefs to cater exquisite farm-to-table meals. As a foodie myself, I was really excited about sampling that kind of next-level cuisine, but apparently the corporation has some food regulations that prevent their chef from sourcing local products. MOFGA was unable to break through to bring in their own food or connect the chef with farmers or distributors to source local ingredients.
It’s a shame, too, because Sugarloaf could do with an injection of local and creative food. What we were served was the usual hotel fare: the fake-eggs, pre-packaged rations and processed eatables. I didn’t eat much of anything while I was there. Even just making a coffee made me feel guilty and excessive. When you have to use 6 packets of sugar and 8 of those tiny cups of creamer to make it reasonably palatable, you feel a little ridiculous…
Aside from the food, the rest of the conference was fantastic. I love that sort of thing anyway, forever the student, eager to learn and soak in new information. I’m the compulsive note-taker off to the side, busy scribbling things down, and I have no problem asking questions.
MOFGA recruits speakers from near and far to give presentations on topics such as animal husbandry, vegetable production, business management for farmers, cut-flower production, soil and pasture health and so much more. These talks are all arranged in such a way that questions and sharing of personal experiences is encouraged. This means you’re not only learning from the “expert”, you’re also gleaning information from your fellow farmers.
It’s really a beautiful thing.
On Sunday morning, I sat in on a talk called “Know-Till” Systems presented by Lincoln Fishman from Sawyer Farm, and Andrew Woodruff of the Island Grown Initiative down in Martha’s Vineyard. Then, Sunday afternoon I attended “Advanced Livestock Health” where a Dr. Sarah Slaby, a holistic livestock veterinarian from Wisconsin was speaking.
With livestock waiting at home, I couldn’t stay for the dinner and farmer-social held Sunday evening, but I was back for more on Monday morning.
The keynote speaker this year was Jennifer Glenister of New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania. Sharing the story of their farm’s continuing journey towards organic soil health, Jennifer talked about everything from employee management and communication, to soil testing, fertility plans and cover cropping.
After that, I sat in on a presentation called Modern Fencing Options. This was all about new fencing technology and how it’s being used in rotational grazing. Apparently, these invisible fencing collars are gaining popularity in the UK, building on increasingly available cell service and GPS tracking. At $200 a unit, though, it’s not an attainable solution for my bootstrap farm, and I worry too about becoming too reliant on cell service…
The RAPPA is an attachment that goes on your 4-wheeler and is being used by Rob Albers up in Aroostook County. I really like this system. It makes laying down and taking up fences a breeze and seems more feasible than GPS collars. This is still out of my reach financially as I’d have to first invest in the 4-wheeler, but it’s good to know it’s out there.
“Pasture Biodiversity and Health: A Deep Dive” was the session I’d chosen to attend on Monday afternoon. With Richard Kersbergen, Extension Professor Emeritus at the University of Maine, and Dr. Sid Bosworth of UVM presenting on the topic. THIS was the session I was most keen on, as a large part of my conservation work here involves the remediation of Runamuk’s 10-acre pasture.
Together with these two professionals and a dozen or so other livestock farmers, we discussed how to go about creating diverse pasture systems to build resilience for our farms. We talked about different grasses─good and bad. We talked about vetch and other legumes, soil and root systems. We talked a lot about methods of overseeding and strategies for remediation. And we talked about carbon sequestration.
And then it was over.
Departing The Mountain, I stopped just long enough to snap a picture of Bigelow across the way…
Thank you, Greater Franklin Food Council!!!
Locally produced foods are scarcer in this part of the state than the southern and coastal parts of Maine. As a farmer and local food advocate, I appreciate the work that the Greater Franklin Food Council has been doing. Last year, the GFFC sponsored a Farmer Survey Report, which they used to create an action plan to address the needs of communities in this region. Connecting farmers (like me) with educational opportunities (like the FFC) is just one small part of their strategy, and I am grateful for the scholarship they provided for this Cinderella-farmer to be able to attend.
Thank you, Greater Franklin Food Council!!!
As much as I loathe the culture and mentality fostered at Sugarloaf, at the end of the day the resort does generate a significant amount of cash-flow through this region. Initially established back in the ’50s, our surrounding communities have grown along with The Mountain so that much of the economy in the area is dependent upon the ski resort. Even part of my own income is derived from skiers, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming ski-season to get myself back on my feet─financially speaking. So for that, I am grateful for Sugarloaf.
But mostly because it’s existence saved my beloved Bigelow.
Thank you for following along with the story of this lady-farmer! It truly is a privilege to live this life serving my family and community, and protecting wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more updates from the farm and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love to you and yours, my friends!