Today the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme campaign launches to raise funds for the down-payment on the property that will become the home of Runamuk and the pollinator conservation farm that I have long envisioned. Eeeeeeeeek!
The Man Woman in the Arena
I’m taking a deep breath and putting myself once more in the ring to fight for this dream. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to be in such a position, at the mercy of so many factors beyond my control, and yet I must give it all I’ve got. Against all odds I was called to beekeeping and pollinator conservation, and against all odds I have grown my farming business even as a landless farmer. I have chosen to commit myself to the same economically depressed region of Maine where I was born and raised, and have bootstrapped my way to this arena. I just need a little help to get there.
It’s been a long, hard scrabble, but I’ve built my business slowly and carefully to the point where Runamuk is now generating enough income to warrant investment in real estate. We need a property where we can dig in, plant perennials and begin to cultivate this pollinator haven, putting into action all of the techniques I have learned for bee-friendly farming and leading the way for other farmers to take up a bee-friendly approach to farming too. I
This conservation and demonstration farm will allow Runamuk to host a wide spectrum of workshops, tours with the public, school field trips and family picnics. With winding paths through the gardens it will be a place of revelry for the beauty and wonder of nature. Our approach to farming will inspire others to start their own journey toward a more sustainable lifestyle.
After searching for years, I can’t help but wonder if it is fate at work, or mere serendipity that the Swinging Bridge Farm became available just as the Runamuk FarmRaiser was about to go live.
Later this morning Paul and I will be going to see the old farmhouse in New Portland. I can hardly believe that the sellers have already agreed to my drawn-out timeline for finalizing the sale of the property. Because I am a farmer and am unable to receive financing with a regular bank, I’m working with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. As you can imagine, any government program comes with a lot of hoops to jump through, hurdles to overcome, and it’s a slow process. I know most people don’t have the luxury of waiting so long for a sale to go through.
I’m a bundle of nerves and fairly quivering with excitement as I wait for the time to come to meet what could possibly be my forever-farm. Could it be? Is it she? The one I am destined to love for the rest of my life? The land that I will give myself to, to sweat and bleed over, to love and cry for─til death do us part?
How you can help
FOLLOW: Follow this blog by email. Follow us on facebook, instagram, twitter, linked, or pinterest to follow our journey and learn more about how you can BEE more friendly.
SHARE: Share the blog with friends and family. Share the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme link with your networks to help spread the word about my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm. It’s a small thing, but it really makes a big difference and it would mean the world to me. And it’s a FREE way to support Runamuk.
PARTY! If you’re in the state of Maine, and especially if you’re local─come to my FarmRaiser Party on Sunday October 1st! Good food, good beer, good music, and good company. What more could you want? All proceeds go to the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign.
DONATE: If you can afford to and are inspired to help bees, consider donating to our gofundme campaign. I’ve come up with some great bee-friendly perks to show my appreciation, including bee-themed refrigerator magnets that friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds are helping me to paint, bumper stickers, honey, reserved spots in future workshops, and more! [paypal-donation]
Runamuk is already a force within the community here in central Maine. But I know I can do more; I’m ready to take this next step and grow my business into this powerhouse of a conservation center. Please join me on this journey; become my brothers and sisters in arms, and take up the fight. Together we can save bees and save the world.
For the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping I am trying my hand at raising my own Queens. I’m excited for what this new skill means for my apiary and now wonder why I didn’t start sooner! We’re at the height of the growing season now and I am out there in the thick of it, loving every minute.
In the field where the grasses are growing chest-high under the golden summer sunshine, elbow deep in a beehive amid a cloud of buzzing bees it is easy to forget that Runamuk is still homeless, that my vision for a pollinator conservation farm is still only a concept in my mind. Mostly I maintain a positive attitude about it: “It’s not the destination it’s the journey”; and “I’m so awesome I’m making an impact on my community even as a landless farmer.”
Raising my own Queens through propagation of hardy Maine honeybee stock means I will finally be able to stop buying in bees every year; it means I can move toward a more sustainable apiary. Such is the nature of beekeeping that the beekeeper must accept the fact that there will be annual losses of colonies; statistics site that the nationwide average of annual hive loss among American beekeepers is 38%. Beekeepers like Kirk Webster, Mike Palmer and Ross Conrad are mitigating those losses by producing their own bees to supply their apiaries. I figure if those guys can do it, so can I. I’ve read their books, listened to their talks, and this past winter I read Brother Adams’ book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey which lent more depth to the process of overwintering Queens as nucleus colonies.
Something about the Queen honeybee is a little intimidating though. I’ve always been super protective of her and the idea of being responsible for numerous Queens was─and still is─a little scary for me. However the rewards of learning to produce good Queens was too powerful a draw for this beekeeper to resist. Not only would producing my own Queens provide me with the means to grow my apiary, but also create opportunity to sell overwintered nucs and mated-Queens, which are in high demand. That’s money in the bank for Runamuk.
I did my homework, had a plan mapped out, knew exactly what I needed for supplies, and we trucked down to Humble Abodes for equipment. Humble Abodes is my favorite place to purchase bee-equipment; made with pine and milled right there at their facility in Windsor, it’s local, reasonably priced and I can drive to pick it up to avoid shipping costs.
Forever bootstrapping Runamuk along, we sought the cheapest way to make this leap possible. I decided to just buy the deep boxes and turn them into double-nucs myself. We happened to have enough plywood on hand that we could create the divider, along with bottom boards and top-covers. Paul cut the pieces and I assembled it all and before we knew it we had 10 divided nuc-boxes ready to go.
I made my ventilated cell-starting boxes and loaded it with young nurse bees. Then I took a frame of eggs from one of the 2 colonies I have that survived this last winter: the one with the best brood pattern and the calmest temperament. Instead of grafting, which can have a lower success rate because you’re moving the larvae around, I opted to try another method where you simply cut the frame with the eggs into strips and adhere it to the Queen-cell frame with beeswax.
We were right down to the wire on this project. I had started the first round of Queens and then we ran for the equipment and rushed to get it put together. I even started a second round and put those cells in the finisher-hive too. By the time I got to the apiary to move the Queen-cells into mating nucs the first Queen had hatched out and killed the other 17 Queens before they even had a chance to emerge.
Timing is everything in raising Queens. Instead of 18 new Queens I have 1 blood-thirsty bitch of a Queen. She better be the best damn Queen ever is all I can say.
Not to be deterred, I’ve started a 3rd round. It’s a new skill and it takes time to master anything worth doing. I think I’m starting to get the hang of the process. Setting up the cell-starter seems to be the biggest pain, though prepping the Queen-cell frame is tedious. I’ve realized how crucial it is to know how old the larvae is that you use for Queen-production and how important the timing is too. There’s not much lee-way so the beekeeper has to be prepared.
Otherwise in the apiary this are going well. We’ve been selling the honey from the hives we lost this past winter at market all season; it feels really good to have that product on the table at the Runamuk at the Madison Farmers’ Market. The packages we bought from Peter Cowin ramped up with surprising speed and are now making honey. We got fewer nucleus colonies from Bob Egan than we’d initially planned, allowing me to pursue the Queen-project that was so important to me; those nucs have just about filled the brood nest and will be ready to make honey in earnest by the time the fall nectar-flow hits.
Depending on how many Queens I manage to produce the two colonies that came through the winter will get broken down to provide mating-nucs with combs and resources. It may seem counter-intuitive to take apart perfectly good, well established colonies, but those well established colonies also have well-established colonies of Varroa mites. Breaking up a colony also breaks up that mite-infestation and reduces the pest-pressure on the bees. Besides, if I can go from 2 hives to 40, it’s well worth the sacrifice in the long run.
To me it makes sense to raise my own Queens. What do you think? Have any tips for me? Feel free to leave me a comment below!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
As the days grow longer and the winter begins to wane, farmers, gardeners, and beekeepers alike are all gearing up for the growing season ahead. Like many others out there, I have been eagerly planning my garden for the 2016 growing season. More than ever before I am determined to grow as much of my own food as possible─not only to live more sustainably, but also to stretch my bootstrap budget as far as possible.
I’ve ordered my seed-potatoes and onion-plants early, and placed orders for the few seeds I needed/wanted that were not already part of my extensive seed-inventory. One of the perks of working for Johnny’s Selected Seeds is coming in to work to find my order waiting on my desk. Yay seeds!
It’s a fact that many farmers need to work off the farm to cover their living expenses or to have access to health insurance or other sorts of benefits otherwise not available to them. And while I strive to reach a point where Runamuk is infact a self-sustaining business that pays its farmers’ living expenses, we are not there yet, and I suppose if I were being realistic I would admit that it may never reach that point. That’s a dismal sort of thought for me though, so I still work toward my end-goal of working for Runamuk and Runamuk alone.
And in the meanwhile, to supplement my income and pay for my living expenses I’ve taken to working off the farm. I took a seasonal position in the call center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds back in January, and that worked out well–other than the fact that I was sitting at a desk inside all day. The people I worked with were all fantastic–farmers, gardeners, and homesteading-types, with a creative energy and an atmosphere that I really responded to. I was able to work on other projects while I was there–writing, blogging, organizing for the beekeepers’ group or the farmers’ market–I could do while I was “at-work”, which made my load a little easier to manage.
In the spring I took at job closer to home at the local Campbell’s True Value right in Madison, but while the people I was working with were all really good people, I found the company itself to be more corporate than I’d realized and my personal values and principals may also have been something of a sticking point for them too. In the end the company and I parted ways after just a few short weeks. I still shop there and chat with my former co-workers, but I am relieved to not be working there.
I know I could get any entry-level job in a convenience store or the local Hannaford, I could take a job working long hours in a kitchen, or go back to waitressing as I did in my early twenties–but those are all soul-crushing atmospheres and I would be more than miserable. It’s just not worth it to me to live miserably; I would rather drive farther, or work fewer hours for a paycheck earned doing something I could at least relate to on some level.
And even though I’ve managed to find work and people that I enjoy–it all pales in comparison to the work that I do on this farm. The checks I receive from the MSBA for doing the BeeLine brings me more satisfaction than a “paycheck” earned off the farm. $45 earned at market may be a much smaller take-home than my paycheck from Johnny’s, but it has a much higher value to me.
With the busy season in the call center at Johnny’s long behind us, and the threat of winter looming ahead, I took a job recently at North Star Orchards in Madison. I’m working around 30 hours a week there packing apples for the Dimmock family. It’s still a bit of a bitter pill to swallow to have to be off the farm, but the work isn’t bad–I’m learning a lot about apples and apple farming–and the people at North Star are all really good people.
But working off the farm doesn’t mean that I farm less, or give up farming. On the contrary–I’m working longer days now because the work still needs to get done–especially if I am ever to achieve my goal of working for Runamuk alone.
I’ve created multiple income streams for Runamuk: selling at the farmers’ market, putting together the BeeLine for the MSBA, this blog, the on-farm workshops, bee-schools, honeybee and wasp removals, online sales…. The farm is beginning to gain some momentum and I’m pleased to say that Runamuk is paying half the rent this month. That in itself if cause for celebration and I think I will pick up some Sammy Adam’s Octoberfest this Friday evening in honor of the accomplishment.
Course–truth be told–I would have “celebrated” a much smaller feat for an excuse to enjoy some fall brew. The tree tops are beginning to change to their fall coloring here and the selection of fall beers in the stores have me thirsty to try them all. Stay tuned folks!
Spring has finally come to my neck of the Maine woods. Last week, for the first time in months, the temperatures rose into the 40s and exuberantly I made my way to the apiary to check on the bees. After five years keeping bees I know enough to realize that the odds were against me. Last year’s neglect led to hives with high infestations of mites, and while I hoped for the best for my remaining hives, I was realistic about what I might find when I opened the hives.
I could tell as I approached that it was likely the colonies had perished. On a warm sunny day in March the bees should have been flying, but the bee-yard was silent and devoid of life. Hoping against hope I lifted the top covers, but alas–inside I found only death.
You might think I would be devastated by the loss, but such is beekeeping in this day and age. Last year I chose to focus on expanding my farm, and so I did not invest much in the way of time or money into the bees. And it was evident when I finally did mite-tests on the hives and found them overwhelmed with the parasites. Belatedly I attempted to correct the situation, but as is so often the case in farming–if you miss the window of opportunity that Mother Nature affords you, it is often too late to do much about it.
This “window of opportunity” is something I emphasized with this year’s bee-school students. I want them to learn from my mistakes.
Now here I am. Facing divorce, a farmer without a farm, having sold off my precious goats, starting over at square one, and not even a single colony of honeybees to boast of. People ask me how I am doing, and I answer honestly: some days are good, and some days are not.
Mostly I take each day as it comes, holding tight to hope and putting one foot in front of the other with sheer determination. But some days hope and optimism are fleeting. Some days the dream of having and working my own piece of land seems too far out of reach, and the pressures of the world are too overwhelming to bear. Those days I question myself, my choices, who I am and what I am doing. Those days are filled with anxiety and uncertainty and–I’m not ashamed to admit–sometimes even a fair amount of depression and self-pity. There is no choice but to endure the day hour by hour, knowing that somehow this too shall pass.
Then–just the other day–someone said to me when we were talking about my farm and the divorce: “What good is a farm without land?”
And that irked me. At first I didn’t know why their words bothered me so much, but it was one of those conversations that stuck with me, and the more I play and replay the conversation over in my head, the more that question bothers me.
I am a farmer at heart, with or without a farm. And I have a farm-based business even without land to farm on.
Yes, some aspects of my farm I’ve had to let go of–the goats, the market garden, and for the time being–my grandiose plans for a pollinator conservation and sustainable living center.
But there are aspects of my farm that survive, such as the apiary. I have new colonies coming later in the spring to replace those that have been lost, and I have hopes of catching some swarms too. I have my beeswax products that I make and pedal, and I still have a dozen or so laying hens that are mine as soon as I have a coop to put them in.
I have small but growing group of dedicated customers and followers who support me and my farming endeavors, who swear by my beeswax soaps and herbal salves, are first in line to buy the season’s honey, and who clamor for my farm-fresh eggs. They may be few in number, but regardless I have customers–and that constitutes a business–however small it may be.
Perhaps the question bothered me because it is one that I have asked myself on those bad days when I am overwhelmed by life, doubting myself and uncertain about what my future holds. On those days it’s hard not to look at all that I have given up for the chance at fabled happiness and wonder if I have made the right choices in my life.
I am a farmer with no land to farm on. I am a beekeeper with no bees. How can I rightly call myself either?
And yet I do. I cling to those titles like a life-line. They have become part of my identity and I cannot let them go. I may be back to square one, but I am not quitting. I will continue working to build up my business on leased land until the day that I can invest in my very own farm and land. I firmly believe that I will have that some day.
There is a poem that I came across when I was still just a teenager making plans for the future, and it has stuck with me all these years.
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die life is a broken-winged sparrow that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go life is a barren field frozen with snow.” ~Langston Hughes
Business planning and annual reviews are an important aspect of any business–big or small–even agricultural businesses. Typically most farmers spend time during the quieter winter months planning and preparing for the next season, and I may be a little late getting to it this year due to the disarray my life currently faces, but I have been reviewing Runamuk’s farming operation and making plans just like any other good and dedicated farmer.
Recently I conducted a SWOT analysis of my farming business (read more about what a SWOT analysis is and how to do an analysis of your own farm by clicking here), small as it may be–and here is what I came up with:
Getting my home-processing license for bottling honey.
Building the apiary up to 12 hives.
Starting the Somerset Beekeepers’ group.
Establishing the Madison Farmers’ Market.
Placing in the top 25 of SYTYCW14.
What made you start your operation?
Needed to pay for my beekeeping and gardening obsession.
Needed my own source of income.
What are your major sources of profit?
Why do your cutomers buy from Runamuk?
We offer a local source of honey.
For our quality products
Because they know me–either as a friend or family member, or as a local farmer/beekeeper.
What sets you apart from others?
Dedication to conservation
What resources does Runamuk have access to?
Numerous apiary locations
Surplus hive equipment
Extractor & tools
What is your greatest asset?
Access to apiary locations
What does Runamuk not do well?
Keep hives alive long-term.
Grow the apiary
Increase market distribution
What are your least profitable enterprises?
What is your biggest expense?
What might other farmers see as Runamuk’s weaknesses?
Lack of start-up capital.
Lack of a farm
Farmer spread too thin.
What should you avoid?
Losing any more hives.
Taking on too much too soon.
What resources does the farm need?
Funds for investment
A farm of my own/permanent location.
Opportunities for Runamuk
What technologies are available that you can use to lower costs?
Can Runamuk have more predictable cash flows?
What market trends have you observed?
Increased sales during the holiday season.
Opportunity for internet sales
Possibility for more sales via tourist hot-spots.
What new relationships can the farm develop?
Affiliates through the Homestead Bloggers’ Network
Friendships with peers at market & Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
What local events might benefit the farm?
Cook-offs (using honey is recipes)
Threats to Runamuk’s Operation
Are there any significant changes to the industry?
Problems with mites.
Do you have competitors reducing the farm’s market share?
More new beekeepers.
Lots of soap on the market.
Beekeepers with 100s of hives.
What are the major obstacles to the Runamuk operation?
Lack of land
Little start-up capital.
Difficulty keeping colonies alive/thriving.
Does the farm have bad debt or cash-flow problems?
Credit is tied up with the Burns property.
Could any of the farm’s weaknesses seriously threaten the operation?
What does this mean for Runamuk?
Once I had all of this information I needed to translate it into some kind of plan.
Initially I took four pieces of paper and wrote “Strengths” on one, “Weaknesses” on another, Opportunities on the next, and Threats on the last. Then I jotted down the questions for each category and brainstormed the responses you see above. When that was finished I sat at my desk at Johnny’s between calls for seed orders and took my red ink pen and a bright yellow highlighter and went through the lists. I highlighted those points that I feel were strongest, and added notes in red ink as needed. This just helped me to better hone in on my strongest strengths and opportunities, and to analyze those weaknesses and threats that pose the most danger to my farming operation.
With that done I took another piece of paper and spent some times matching my strengths to the opportunities that I saw. Then I did the same for Runamuk’s weaknesses and threats–with the intention of converting them to strengths and opportunities down the road. And if I can’t convert those weaknesses, I will work toward minimizing their impact on my business.
This is what my plan for Runamuk looks like for 2015:
No one gets into farming because they want to get rich, lol. But at the same time a farm is still a business, and a business needs to at least break even–if not earn a profit. Conducting a SWOT analysis of your farm-business annually can help you to determine what’s working for you and what’s not.
What is SWOT?
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. A SWOT analysis is a business planning tool that you can use to help identify these key components of your business by asking yourself questions and breaking the answers up into these categories.
Why should you SWOT?
A SWOT analysis can help to provide direction and serves as a basis for the farm’s business plans. It enables you to find and identify competitive advantages by matching strengths to opportunities. You can pin-point areas of weakness or potential threats to your business and convert them into strengths or opportunities too. And if it is not possible to convert threats and weaknesses, at the very least you will be able to strategize a way to minimize or avoid them.
All of this translates into a clearer direction for your business that will produce a more successful and productive farming operation.
How to SWOT
Get some paper and sit down with a pen and write out the four categories: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Now ask yourself a series of questions for each category, brainstorm and jot down your answers. Here are some possible questions:
Your farm’s strengths
What made you start farming? (It’s important to remember the driving force behind your business–it can keep you grounded and provide direction).
What does your farm do well?
What is your farm’s main focus?
What have been your most notable achievements?
What are your major sources of profit?
Why do your customers buy from Runamuk?
What sets you and your farm apart from others?
What resources do you have available?
What is your greatest asset?
What does your farm not do well?
What are your least profitable enterprises?
What is your biggest expense?
What resources does the farm need?
What might other farmers see as your farm’s weaknesses?
What should you avoid?
What technologies are available that you might use to lower costs and/or improve marketing?
Can the farm have more predictable cash flows?
What market trends have you observed?
What new relationships can the farm develop?
What local events might benefit the farm? (annual fairs or festivals, etc.)
Are there industry promotional events that you can take part in? (for example: Maine Maple Sunday, Open Farm Day, etc.)
Can profitability be improved? How?
Have there been any significant changes to the industry?
Do you have competitors reducing the farm’s market share?
What are the obstacles to your farming operation?
Does the farm have bad debt or cash-flow problems?
Could any of the farm’s weaknesses seriously threaten the operation?
These are the questions that I asked myself when I did my own SWOT analysis (which you can see here). The answers will vary from farmer to farmer because every farm is as unique as the person farming it. There are many different types of farms–from apple orchards to dairy farms to vegetable farms, and a spectrum a methods for each. There is always something we are struggling with, and there’s always room for improvement. Hopefully this list helps you to brainstorm and analyze your own operation so that you can be more productive ans successful this year than last.
Be sure to ask for the input of everyone who works the farm–be they family members, or paid employees or even volunteers. It’s helpful to gain the perspective of others.
Once the key components of your operation have been identified and categorized the information can be combined and strategies can be created. Use the information you have gathered to draw up plans that take advantage of your farm’s strengths and the opportunities you identified. Develop plans that counter the threats you foresee, and establish goals or guidelines that will help to strengthen your weak areas.
This becomes your business plan for the year. Revisit it seasonally to be sure you are adhering to the plan you outlined, but feel free make adjustments as needed–sometimes what we looks like a good strategy in February or March, may not be working so well come August. Any number of issues can throw a monkey-wrench into the workings of your operation–from a broken valve on your tractor that costs a couple of thousand to replace to an unexpected accident. And then there’s the fact that much of farming is entirely dependent upon nature. A pest problem may threaten your most valuable crop, the weather may not cooperate, or perhaps there’s a shortage of available crop-seed. Farmers need to be organized like any business, but we also need to be flexible enough to deal with the challenges that Mother Nature throws at us.
What do you think? Any experienced farmers out there with insight to contribute to beginning farmers everywhere? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments below!
This old 1950s Farmall tractor was donated to our farm–it took us a while to find someone to help us move it to the farm, but last Sunday it finally arrived!
The tractor came with a number of attachments–including a plow, which I am ecstatic to say will help us keep our 200-yard driveway clear this winter (and also means I won’t be shoveling the whole thing! yay!!!).
The tractor had belonged to my aunt’s 93 year-old father-in-law, who’s had the thing for years just sitting in a garage at his place over in Vassalboro–which is nearly an hours’ drive from the farm. To even get the machine running so that it could be loaded and moved, Keith has made several trips over there to work on the engine.
I am so grateful such generosity–every farm needs a tractor, and this is going to be a huge asset for Runamuk.
Much of society dreads the coming of winter with its frigid temperatures, long dark nights and back-breaking shoveling—yet farmers and homesteaders alike breathe a sigh of relief that the frantic pace of the growing season is behind us. Sure–winter means shoveling walk-ways and thawing frozen water buckets for livestock—but it also means quiet time, and after this first growing season on our new property, working to expand our farming efforts, I am absolutely ready for some quiet time and the slower pace that Old Man Winter brings with him.
Sheep at Runamuk
So much has happened since I last had time to write that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess it all began when the sheep arrived on the farm. 4 ewes and a ram of mixed blood-lines were gifted to us. Or cursed upon us—depending on how you want to look at it. The topic of sheep leading up to their arrival was a source of conflict between hubby and I.
You’re not always going to agree with your husband, that’s just plain fact. And couples who farm together are prone to more disagreements than those who don’t. It’s just the nature of the beast—he has his image of what this farm should be, and I have mine—the chore for us is to create a farm that blends those images so that we are are both content and satisfied.
Sheep are definitely part of our long-term strategy for Runamuk. Keith and I see them as a viable means of maintaining pastures once the goats and pigs have done the job of reclaiming this overgrown acreage. They absolutely were not on the list for this year. “But they were FREE.”
So the sheep came, and we set them up inside the electric net fencing alongside the garden with a temporary shelter. We didn’t tell the sheep that the fencing wasn’t charged (the charger we’d bought wasn’t quite strong enough to power the net-fencing, and the uneven, overgrown terrain grounded the fence out making it utterly useless). They respected the fence for a month or so and did a beautiful job clearing the overgrown weeds—the grasses and goldenrod that threatened to overtake my garden.
I liked having the sheep. The satisfaction that comes with taking care of livestock is unparalleled. Each critter has a unique personality, and the relationship between farmer and animal is one of trust and respect that can be hard to match among people.
Sheep in the garden
Then the sheep realized that we’d been fooling them all that time–that there was a veritable salad bar just next door—and afterall, who wants dinner when they can go right to desert?
Early in the morning on the day of my thirty-fourth birthday I discovered the sheep in the garden. I was devastated. Happy birthday to me.
Within two weeks they’d completely decimated the eighth of an acre that I’d put so much effort into cultivating. My crops for market, for my CSA and for my family were gone. And with sheep in the garden the prospect of planting for fall and winter harvest went out the window. You can’t plant seeds if the sheep are going to trample the tender sprouts or munch the seedlings.
Such is the life of the beginning farmer. Who knew sheep had such a taste for vegetables? Seriously—in none of the books we’d read, none of the blogs I’ve followed along with—did anyone ever mention this. We’d expected such behavior from the goats, but not so much from the sheep. Sigh.
I tried to look on the positive side. The sheep weren’t just eating the vegetables, but also the weeds that had gotten away from me. They were also fertilizing the soil. These were both good things, right?
Note: With winter fast approaching, shelter and fencing still to get up before snow falls, the sheep have since been sold to a farm in Albion who are better established than we are. Despite my bitterness over losing the garden, I was sad to see them go. We will have sheep at Runamuk again, but only when the time is right (I hope).
Enter the writing contest
With the garden gone, my time was freed up, and after stumbling upon Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write contest, I decided on impulse to enter the competition. That’s right—I write romantic fiction. I have for years. I’ve kept it to myself, a personal indulgence that I hid like a dirty little secret, only sharing with the world the non-fiction works that I have done—the various articles and the blog.
By entering the first chapter of my novel “Saving Greene Farm” into Harlequin’s competition, I effectively came out of the closet as a romance novelist. It was a scary step for me. I’m still frightened of the repercussions, but I wanted to share my stories with the world. Stories about farmers and homesteaders, stories about living more sustainably and finding love along the way. Stories that I would want to read, and stories that I’m certain other people would enjoy reading too.
There are other stories I want to write too. I’d like to write a farm memoir about reclaiming this abandoned and overgrown farm. I aspire to do a non-fiction work about beekeeping, and another about pollinator conservation. I’ve even contemplated writing and illustrating my own children’s books.
But this story came first. The story of a young farmer desperately trying to save her family’s 7th-generation farm, and the corporate CEO who steps away from his life in the city to pursue a more meaningful existence. You can read the first chapter here.
Tragedy hits home
It was in the midst of this So You Think You Can Write competition that my father lost his long suffering battle with COPD. For the last several years I’ve been looking after my father, whose health has slowly deteriorated. Back in March he took a turn for the worse, and all summer, between gardening, and managing and attending the Madison Farmers’ Market, I’ve gone back and forth to Daddy’s several times a week to take care of him as well. I’ve been buying his groceries, making him food, helping out with small chores around his apartment, bringing his laundry home to add to the mound of our own laundry, and coordinating the services of the Hospice volunteers that came to help out.
On September 25th he was taken to the hospital by ambulance, and I joined Daddy’s brothers and sisters─my aunts and uncles─his mother (my Nana), and my brother and sister, to sit by his side until he slipped away on the 26th.
My father was a kind-hearted christian man, who had faced more than his fair share of struggles in his fifty-five years. He was devastated when my mother divorced him (I was thirteen at the time), and he never fully recovered. He had dreams and aspirations that he never saw come true, spending his entire life working in the local wood mills until two years ago when he reached the point where he was just too sick to do it anymore. But he was generous and supportive of his children, he loved all three of us dearly, and he was a sweetheart of a grandfather to my two boys. If you’re so inclined, you can read his obituary here.
A Top 25 Finalist!
The period for entry into the contest came to a close, with nearly five-hundred first chapters submitted by authors from around the world. The top 25 finalists were to be announced on or around Monday October 6th, and between funeral arrangements, and sorting Daddy’s things my manuscript was far from finished, though I kept plucking away at it–a little more every day. When I did not receive “The Call” from Harlequin Monday or Tuesday I figured that I hadn’t made the cut, and breathed a sigh of relief. I would continue to finish the novel, take a break from it, then come back to edit the thing, and then finally submit it to Harlequin through the regular channels.
That Thursday we went for a hike through the woods to tape rock maples so that they would be easier to locate next February when we wanted to tap for maple syrup. I was a beautiful and relaxing autumn walk with hubby and my eldest son, the goats and the two dogs. I was stunned to see an email there from Harlequin when I got back home. I’d made the top 25! I was ecstatic! I was overjoyed! I was so proud!
And then panic set in.
I spent the next twenty-four hours writing and editing, right up until the noon-time deadline. But I managed to send in a finished manuscript that definitely could have used a bit more polishing, but was─for all intents and purposes—finished.
Now we wait.
Selling my book would make a huge difference here at Runamuk. Yes–you can absolutely bootstrap your way to success, but a good chunk of money would go a long way in establishing the infrastructure that this farm needs (a priority on the list of investments is fencing!). We have a long way to go, and unfortunately it takes money to make money.
From the 25 finalists, the competition will be narrowed down to 10, and then—by mid-November—a winner will be selected. The grand prize is a two-book publishing contract with Harlequin.
Dedicated to Dad
I am so honored—and validated—to be selected as one of the top 25. Even if my book doesn’t win, I know it will be published and when it is, I will dedicate it to my dear father. For a conservative Christian man, to discover that one of his children not only disputed the existence of God and Christ, but also was a liberal granola-crunching back-to-the-land eco-activist, and for that man to continue to support and love such a daughter shows the quality of man that my Daddy was. I never had to wonder if my father loved me, never. He supported my ambitions and my dreams, and despite his debilitating illness he longed to come to the farm and dig in just to help me succeed. For that I will always be grateful that Dana Walter Richards was my father. This one’s for you Daddy!
So we’ll see what happens next. The top 10 finalists will be selected on November 3rd. Whatever happens, you can be sure this is not the end of the road, so stay tuned folks!