Feeding ourselves

Feeding ourselves

The season is well underway here at Runamuk, much as it is on farms across Maine. Trees are budding, pastures are greening up, and I am lulled to sleep each night by a chorus of randy frog-song out my window. And now that the dandelion bloom is underway, I can breathe a sigh of relief and count my blessings; four of my five beehives came through the winter looking fantabulous!

Apiary Update!

The fifth came through Queenless, and with only a handful of older workers and a handful of drone brood, I know I have a laying worker in that hive. The workers can only lay unfertilized eggs, which results in drones.

mouse damaged beehiveThis hive was the victim of repeated mouse-attacks, and I suspect the Queen of hive #5 met with foul play. All is not lost though, the combs and stores that make up the hive will become the foundation for the summer nucs I plan to make as part of my apiary expansion.

The remaining four hives will be my production colonies, and we will have honey! Sweet, delicious, fragrant honey that tastes of millions of beautiful flowers kissed by the sun. The beauty of pollination manifested in this golden substance created by thousands of furry buzzing insects. It’s amazing.

It’s garden-time!

feeding myself
Pollinator plants for the Stonewall Garden; they’ve graduated from the grow racks in the living room, to the sunporch at night and outside during the day.

The bees are looking great, but it is the garden that has consumed me as of late. Things are getting serious here at Runamuk; this is not some hobby-farm and though I love the people I work with at Johnny’s, if I can earn my living tending bees and plants you can bet I’m going to do so. I’ve carefully planned Runamuk’s expansion so that the business can pay the farm’s bills, and I am working doggedly toward that ends.

After scraping by all winter in order to pay the bills, accepting that─to some degree─I was just going to be cold, and skipping luxuries like beer or wine, steak or roasts, even cheese─I’m serious about producing as much food as possible and storing it away for the winter.

making my own sourdough
We’ve been experimenting with making sourdough bread; it’s delicious!

Don’t worry, lol─I didn’t freeze and I didn’t go hungry. Jim’s old farmhouse is big and drafty, and heating it was a challenge. I kept to the main rooms and tacked blankets across the doorways, the kids and I slept downstairs and didn’t venture upstairs much. My monthly food allowance is about a hundred bucks a month, and while I’ve always been fairly frugal with the food budget, this winter was a lesson in Advanced Frugality 2.0. The bulk of my food allowance went toward just staples like flour and baking supplies. Then a few packages of meat, like burger or stew meat that could be stretched out by adding it to casseroles or soups; a few packages of frozen vegetables to supplement the vegetables I’d managed to store from last summer’s garden, butter and milk, and then the food allowance was gone.

Remember, it’s not just me here in this big old farmhouse alone, I have an apprentice whom I pay with room and board, which means I need to feed the guy. And don’t forget my own two boys who are at the farm part of each week.

old laying hens
They may not look like the chicken you get at the grocery store, but I am damn proud to be able to process my old laying hens!

We didn’t have a lot, but I think we were actually eating very well. The situation forced us to eliminate processed foods, extra snacks, and to really think about what we were spending our food dollars on. We ate oatmeal or eggs (from the Runamuk hens), pancakes, soup, potatoes and squashes from my garden (til they ran out), rice; meat was not used in every meal and it was not a featured part of entrees when we did have it.

I processed old hens and we ate chicken; we’re still eating chicken, lol!

Yet because of this frugal food budget we began experimenting with microgreens and eating salads. I got back into sprouting, bread-making, producing kombucha, and we began playing around with sourdough starters and cooking with dry beans.

Microgreens are super-easy to grow, even in the dead of winter!

To eat, you must produce!

There were a few times I showed up to work late, frazzled, and without a meal because I had nothing in my fridge or cupboards that I could just grab and go on my way out the door for work at Johnny’s. I’m grateful for friends there who offered me food and love and sustained my soul while I struggle to make this farming thing work.

We weren’t going hungry. We were eating real food, and I don’t mind terribly going without some of the luxuries so that I can continue to be here at Jim’s. But the financial situation brought home the importance of the garden, and drove home the concept that in order to eat well, I must produce. In order to sustain a household and the farm, I need to be able to feed the people who rely on it.

Not only does Runamuk need to be able to carry the cost of the farm financially, but it also needs to be able to feed it’s stewards.

I came across some interesting numbers when I was rewriting my business plan this winter. According to the USDA’s “Monthly Cost of Food” report, for me to feed a household of 4, on a “thrifty plan” I should be spending $646.70 a month. A low-cost to moderate food plan averages $850-$1059 a month, and households with a more “Liberal” food plan spend $1287 a month on average.

That’s $7760 annually on the thrifty plan. If I can grow my own food, not only will my household be eating better, but it frees those funds up for other uses. Paying the bills, investments for Runamuk, or the food products I am not able to produce myself (dairy products and some fruits).

And so feeding myself and my household has become a major goal for this year.

producing my own food
Tomato plants!

Gardens begin in the dead of winter with the dream and the planning. I began my garden plans back in January, researching how much food I would need to produce to feed a household of 4. There are varying numbers from an array of sources, but we decided to use figures from “How to Grow More Vegetables” as our baseline figures. This book is a wealth of information on biointensive and sustainable growing practices and contains an extensive collection of gardening charts.

red norland seed potatoes
Seed potatoes sprouting eyes before sowing.

Through careful recordkeeping we’ll be able to determine if we need to grow more or less of a particular crop. This year I am growing a lot of storage crops: 80lbs of seed potatoes, 7 bunches of onion plants from Johnny’s (translates into 420 onions), sucsession sowings of carrots and beets, 132-row-feet of dry beans, winter squashes, and don’t forget the garlic that I sowed last fall for harvest this July. Naturally there will be an assortment of tomatoes, but a focus on preserving the harvest in the form of tomato puree canned for later. Whatever snap peas and green beans I can get past the kids and into the freezer, I will blanch and store for the winter, cucumbers will be made into pickles, and of course there will be the joyous fresh-eating direct from the garden in the form of snacks or garden-to-table meals. I love shopping for dinner in my own garden!

The farm feeds the farmer

foraging for food
Fiddleheads are an early spring vegetable offered up by the land.

It’s important to remember that the vegetables I manage to produce are not just to “supplement” my diet. This is serious business; if I don’t grow vegetables, or raise some kind of meat or accept a different protein source, I don’t eat. I can’t allocate funds earmarked for the rent to pay the grocery bill. I must stick to the budget.

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.

Luckily this farm is well equipped to feed it’s farmer. Not only did Jim establish a 100-foot long garden, as well as other raised beds, he planted blueberries and raspberries. Long ago another farmer planted apple trees, and the land surrounding the farmhouse offers a diverse array of edible wild plants that are just waiting to be harvested. This land abounds with deer and game too, and fish in the Sandy River.

I get the distinct feeling that this land wants a farmer, a steward. Say what you will, but I believe that plants and animals have feelings too, that the energies of the universe have some effect on us, and that a collective habitat can give off a vibe which can be felt by those sensitive or empathetic to them. When I am exploring the surrounding fields and forests I feel welcome, and the land rewards me with gifts, trophies and edibles, resources and opportunities. It is up to me to find them, to make use of them, so that I can continue to live on the property and protect it for future generations.

So stay tuned folks! The season is underway and things are picking up!

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Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm