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!

Winter solstice & dawning realizations

winter-solstice-dawning-realizations

As the Wheel of the Year turns the seasons and we move deeper into the darkest half of the year I want to pause for a moment to reflect on the journey that has brought me to where I am today. I’ve spent a lot of time this fall looking inward, thinking about who I am─the experiences that have shaped me as a person, and the choices I’ve made that brought me to this place in my life. Traditionally fall has been a time for honoring the dead, a time for self-reflection, for letting go and saying farewell. A time to release resentments and regrets.

Life is rough

winter-solstice-dawning-realizations
Traditionally the dark weeks leading up to the Winter Solstice are a time for reflection and letting go.

You know it’s been a rough one when your nine year old son looks at you with somber eyes and says to you “Mom…you’ve had a sad life….” These last few years have been especially filled with struggle─but that’s nothing new to me. Mine is a tale filled with pain and tragedy that I am not comfortable sharing online for the whole world to read. No─I’ll save that story for the memoir I’ll write someday, lol, and you’ll have to read the gory details from the pages of my book!

Maybe it’s just a survival tactic I’ve picked up along the way, but I’ve come to view times of trouble as “life lessons”. They’ve become opportunities─a time for self-reflection, exploration and personal growth.  And after each struggle I have emerged stronger, wiser, and perhaps (to my continuing detriment) even more stubborn. At this point I feel I have a pretty clear understanding of who I am, what I want, what I am willing to do to get it─and what I’m not. I’ve realized I’m a very principled person, but that my principles don’t always align with those of the mainstream public. I live largely by two guiding rules. The first: if it’s good for the Earth it’s good for me. and the second: live a full and happy life.

Who am I?

samantha-burns
“If it’s good for the Earth, it’s good for me.”

As a child growing up in Maine I was the proverbial tomboy; I ran through the woods, caught frogs and turtles in the ponds, turned over rotting logs looking for salamanders, played in the dirt with my brother and went fishing with my father. Over the years I have spent a lot of time wandering through the fields and woods, seeking the comforting solace of nature. Nature has healed my spirit, allowed me to feel accepted, loved, and worthy of being loved. I have a connection with nature; it’s only natural that I should want to protect something I care about so deeply.

Becoming an environmentalist, a farmer, beekeeper and advocate was the easy part. Learning to live a full and happy life─that one has been harder to realize. I had to first figure out that the key was to be true to myself─I mean the me that I am deep inside, the one who wants to hide for fear no one will like who and what I am. To do that I first had to figure out exactly who I was. That’s probably easier for some people to figure out, but for me there were a lot of barriers to overcome in order to do so. By the time I began to comprehend who I was and what I wanted, life had already swept me away far down the wrong road.

I am living proof of how a grisly childhood can lead an inexperienced young adult to make poor choices that can affect them for the rest of their life. A testament to how behaviors ingrained in us as children become part of who we are and shape who we become. That being said, I also believe the person we become is dependent upon the individual’s strength of character, their strength of will, and their ability to accept that turbid past, to learn and grow from those ordeals to become the person they are meant to be.

My runaway life

All of this has become clear to me over the last few years as I’ve worked towards living a life true to who I am. It wasn’t easy coming to terms with the fact that I just wasn’t happy in my marriage and that no amount of volunteer work, advocacy, or self-improvement was going to fix what was wrong in my life. Divorce is quite at odds with the lifestyle I lead in farming and I agonized for years over what I knew in my heart needed to be done. Before making the leap I even researched it─looking for guidance online from divorced farmers. Turns out it’s a pretty uncommon occurrence in the ag-industry. It’s incredibly difficult to separate marital assets when farming is involved. And if you think about it, “family” is synonymous with farming. Generally speaking, farmers just don’t get divorced.

finding-the-strength
I looked after Dad for 5 years in an increasing capacity before he died; I didn’t realize til he was gone how close we’d come to be.

It wasn’t until my father died that I finally found the strength to reign in the runaway horse and wagon that my life had become. Changing the direction of your life after 17 years down the wrong road is no easy feat; it took everything I had to wrench that wagon off the road I was on. Some critics asked why I couldn’t have made the leap before my husband and I had taken a mortgage against the parcel of land that his parents had gifted us. Sadly, sometimes those life-altering realizations come to you belatedly, and for me it took losing my father to find the courage to make the changes in my life that my soul so desperately craved. No one regrets all those years of turmoil more than I; I will forever live with the knowledge that I hurt a number of people because I was not strong enough to take control of my runaway life.

I’m sure there are a great many people who believe I should have soldiered on, accepting those choices I made early in life, suffering through life for the sake of my children. I prefer not to live my life that way however, and I would not want my children to grow up to live their life that way either. I am a deeply principled person who regards a full and happy life as the second-most important guiding principle─I could not ignore the fact that for the entirety of my adult life I had not been happy in my marriage. And because I believe that any one person has the power to make changes in their lives no matter how big or small, I endured the uncertainty that followed─wading through the darkness in search of new light and a life that might make my heart sing and my soul soar.

Vulnerability, shame, connection and worthiness

forest-spirit-tattoo
My first tattoo! Forest spirits from Hiyao Miyazaki’s animes; stories of man’s connection to nature which resonates with me personally.

So anyway─in the weeks leading up to and following our “Great Farm Move” I was pretty low and spent quite a lot of time thinking about the choices I’ve made. I thought about these principles that are important to me, that I want to live my life by, and what I want out of life. I spent some time indulging myself, doing some self-care: I started watching a lot of inspirational TED talks and I began to pick myself back up again. I went to see Young Frankenstein the musical at the Waterville Opera House with a colleague from Johnny’s, spent an afternoon shopping at local thrift stores with my sister, and just recently got my first tattoo. In another couple of weeks my sister and I will be going back to the Waterville Opera House to see the Nutcracker in honor of my late father, who had longed for years to take his girls to see that seasonal ballet, but never got the chance to do so.

In the midst of all this I came across Brené Brown’s TED talk on YouTube in which she talks about vulnerability and shame, two emotions that I am acutely familiar with. She says shame is the fear of disconnection. We all want to feel connected in life: connected to our families, to our co-workers, and connected within our community. I want to feel connected to the Earth and nature; that’s why I’m a farmer. Connection gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

Stay with me here; it all circles back around…

Brené says shame and vulnerability prevent the feeling of connection that we all crave, and no one wants to feel grief and disappointment, ashamed or vulnerable, anxious and unworthy─so we numb those difficult feelings. The problem is that you can’t selectively numb emotion; when we numb fear and anxiety, we also numb joy and gratitude and happiness. And then we find ourselves miserable and feeling vulnerable, so we numb.

According to Brené Brown we are the most in-debt, overweight, addicted and medicated society in U.S. history. We don’t want to feel the hard feelings so we numb them with alcohol, with prescription medications, food or whatever it is that comforts us and helps us not to feel vulnerable about who we are and our place in the world. We attempt to perfect ourselves, our children, our homes and our lives─we don’t want anything to be wrong or out of place so that no one can find fault in us because we want to maintain those connections which are so crucial to our existence. And Brené says we also pretend: we pretend to be like everybody else, or we pretend that we agree with the general consensus─we do what we have to do to fit in so that we can feel accepted.

In all of her research Brené found that there were two types of people: those who have a strong sense of worthiness and belonging and those who struggle with it, who are always wondering if they’re good enough (I would belong to this later group). She wanted to know what the first group had that the people in the second group did not, so Brené focused on just the people who possessed that sense of worthiness, calling them “the Wholehearted” and looked at all of the data she had collected from those kinds of people through her work as a researcher. She found that Wholehearted people all have one thing in common: they have courage.

Note: Brené points out that there’s a difference between “bravery” and “courage”, and that the word courage is derived from the Latin word “curr”, which means “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”

Embracing imperfection

embracing-imperfection
Family fun photo!

These Wholehearted people simply have the courage to be who they really are─imperfections and all. These people embraced vulnerability. They live with the belief that what makes you vulnerable also makes you beautiful. The Wholehearted experience a deeper connection with those in their lives and with the world around them as a result of authenticity. And that is inspiring to me.

I lost count of how many YouTube videos I watched of Brené, fascinated with this concept of embracing our imperfections and living a courageous life of authenticity. I even bought 2 of Brené ‘s books: The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. No one likes to admit that they’re vulnerable; that we have fears and anxieties─that we struggle. But Brené Brown has studied vulnerability and shame over the course of her career, and she talks about letting go of who you think you should be in order to live a wholehearted life.

I know it sounds cliche, but sometimes in life, when you hear something at the precise moment in time when you need to hear it most─when you’re ready to hear it─something shifts inside you. Suddenly it all makes sense. I had been fighting to live my life with authenticity, but I didn’t know that’s what I was fighting for.

A friend of mine told me not too long ago that she thought I was courageous for persevering in the face of the obstacles and challenges that have made up my journey thus far as a farmer. I was embarrassed at the time; I scoffed and shrugged it off─knowing that inside I’m perpetually scared that I am not enough, and forever afraid that I really don’t belong.

But she was right. It may be a struggle, but I am living my life with courage and authenticity. I just didn’t realize it until I listened to Brene Brown’s TED talk.

And to further enforce the concept there was this video. Brené calls this talk her “Sweaty Creatives” talk. You don’t have to watch this video, I can’t force you─but I promise you’ll be inspired if you do.

There will always be critics

She quotes a speech that Theodore Roosevelt gave during the early 1900s which has since come to be known as “the Man in the Arena” speech:

It’s not the critic who counts, it’s not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done it better. The credit belongs to the person whose actually in the arena, whose face is marred with blood and sweat and dust. Who at best, in the end, knows the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst─if he fails─he fails daring greatly.”

We have no control over who is in “the Arena”. But if courage (telling our story with authenticity) is a value we hold─we have to show up and be seen. We have to look those critics in the eye and say, “I see you, I hear you, but I’m going to do this anyway.” Because in the end, it’s not about winning or losing; it’s about living a Wholehearted life, true to ourselves.

Brené goes on to say that “if you’re not also standing in the arena getting your ass kicked, then I’m not interested in your feedback.” And that concept has been hugely freeing for me. I’ve long known that not everybody puts themselves out there like I do. Many people are happy enough to coast through life in their own little bubbles, never really doing much of anything, never connecting with the people around them, living solely to pay the bills─just another cog in the wheel of the machine that makes up our mainstream society. Maybe they feel it’s safer that way. I’ve encountered many people who would dictate or pass judgement from their comfy seat on the living room couch with the tv blaring before them. Well I’m sorry, but unless you’re out there in the field sweating in the hot sun, sore and exhausted but still working to give it your all─I’m just not interested in your feedback.

Again, this was something that I “knew” somewhere deep inside, but felt guilty for and struggled to recognize. Brené’s talks really brought it home for me.

runamuk-at-winter-market
Runamuk set up at the Somerset Abbey’s Winter Market in Madison, Maine.

Before I learned about vulnerability and the Wholehearted I was forever at war with myself, I knew in order to be happy I needed to live a life true to who I am─but I always felt guilty for doing so. One part of me felt I didn’t have the right to live a happy life. I didn’t feel I was worthy of love, or even friendship. And I certainly didn’t feel I belonged. Who am I to teach anybody anything, let alone about bees? Who am I to claim to be some environmental activist? Why do I have to write about everything? take photos of everything? This is the part of me who says: “you’re not a farmer”, “you’re not a writer”, and “you’re certainly not doing anything new” or “you’re not qualified”. All this while another part of me says, “Yes I am.” and “Yes I can.”

Well I’m still perpetually at war with myself; fighting with the many different sides of my own self. But Brené Brown has validated what I had known all along: that it’s ok to be imperfect. That having the courage to live authentically is crucial to feeling connected, and that if courage is a value we hold─there are going to be consequences.

Yes, I have fallen a few times along my journey: my divorce and consequent loss of land to farm on, the death of all my hives in the harsh winter of 2014-15, and then losing Jim’s farm… If you’re putting yourself out there, trying to live a full and happy life that is true to yourself, trying to tell your story with courage and integrity─sometimes you’re going to fail. Sometimes you’re going to get your ass kicked in an outright knock-down, drag-out brawl; you’ll be bruised and bleeding and crying for your mommy…but you’ll pick yourself up, limp away to lick your wounds…and you’ll try again another day.

The winter solstice and new beginnings

I think it’s significant that these dawning realizations have come to me as the darkness has gathered this fall. This is a time of year to release old thought patterns, fears, relationships, situations and things that no longer serve you. It’s incredibly freeing to unburden myself of those things that have weighed me down in the past.

At long last my journey of hardship and heartache has brought me to this place where I am performing the work that satisfies my soul; I am surrounded by people I have connected with as a result of that work and because I choose to live this authentic life. I have made so many wonderful and caring friends in the community as a result of volunteering my time and skills to teach others about bees, through serving the community of Madison-Anson as manager of its farmers’ market, and through my work at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I have found that I am not alone in my struggles, and that sharing your journey with those around you leads to a richer and more fulfilling life. I am truly grateful to have each and every one of these people in my life. They have touched my heart and brought a deeper meaning to my existence.

son of runamuk
My youngest, now nearly 10.

As the Wheel of the Year turns to the Winter Solstice and we look forward the rebirth of light to the Earth, I’m turning my attention to the coming year. I’m excited for this new beginning. Runamuk and I may have floundered, yet in spite of it all my kids, the farm and my apiary are still growing. I have a new and dedicated partner in life and in business; Runamuk currently has 15 beehives, 37 egg-laying chickens, 4 meat-rabbits, 3 lazy farm-cats, 1 Murphy-dawg, and 40-something acres to work with. There are exciting opportunities on the horizon and you can be sure I will continue to put myself out there, telling my story with honesty and courage.

Happy Winter Solstice from all of us at Runamuk!

Thanks for following along with my farming journey! Stay tuned for more stories, articles, and misadventures!