Man’s best friend

They say that dogs are “man’s best friend”. And people talk about the relationship between man and dog, but unless you’ve actually experienced that connection it’s really impossible to comprehend just what it means.

I’ve been around dogs all my life–my family had a dog when I was growing up, and then when we embarked on our own life together, Keith and I went to the local animal shelter and found a dog who needed a good home. That dog’s name was Tamra and she was with us for 11 years before she passed on. And then there was Ava–if you don’t know the story of Ava–click here to read all about it.

Willow's Profile

But none of those dogs were MY dog.

The dog chooses it’s owner–I firmly believe that. No matter who claims it, the dog will always choose the one person it prefers above all others. That’s not to say that the dog won’t love anyone else–most dogs are happy to be loved and petted and taken for a walk or a car ride by just about anyone who will show them a little care and affection. Such is the nature of dogs. But there will be one person that a dog will really bond with–one person who it will give it’s life for.

So, yes–I’d known dogs, but I’d never had one of my own before. Not till I found Willow.

livestock guardian dogAfter moving to the property back in December, one of the first animals I wanted to invest in for our farm-expansion, was a livestock guardian dog. I’d been looking for and waiting for “the right one” when I found a local woman who needed to re-home her pyrenees/anatolian puppy. Willow was 4 months old, and I fell in love with her the instant I saw her. That was back in March.

Read more about Willow’s arrival at Runamuk by clicking here.

At that point Willow was already the size of a golden retriever. She came from a home very different from ours–she’d been crate-trained, and allowed to eat chips and people-food on the couch with an 11-year old girl. So I worked dutifully with Willow–house-broke her, taught her to leave people’s plates alone, to sit, to get off the couch upon command, and to go lay down.

Happy Dog Summer 2014Willow is an incredibly timid dog. Vehicles–especially the Runamuk truck–frighten her. Strangers and new dogs scare her. Loud noises, objects out of place, or change–all make her nervous. We joke about the fact that she has got to be the most cowardly livestock guardian you’ll ever meet, but the fact of the matter is–she patrols the farm, barking to scare away prowlers in the dark, even going up against the resident porcupines (even if it is foolhardy) to protect out goats and chickens from mayhem.

I’ve worked with her through all of her fears, some still persist, but we’ve made good progress. The last time she had to go to the veterinarian’s office to have porcupine quills removed she actually went into the building on her own–I didn’t have to carry her in–and at almost 75 pounds–I can’t tell you how happy I was not to have to pick her up!

We take walks together and play little games that only she and I know. She’ll come trotting out with a big stick–almost more of a log at 4 feet in length–and she waits for the customary praise that I am only too happy to give.

She has become my constant companion when I am working about the farm. Joining me in the goat-pen to play while I feed the critters, or waiting for me outside the chicken coop. She accompanies me to the garden (though she still needs to learn some respect for the beds and the crops planted therein!), lays in the shade nearby and keeps guard dutifully while I spend hours weeding. Willow watches and waits while I move from one chore to another, waiting for the opportunity to get close for hugs (that’s right! she actually gives hugs!), pettings and words of love.

She can be stubborn–especially when she’s nervous–and she’ll sit herself down, deciding that since she’s big and strong she doesn’t have to move if she doesn’t want to. But when she looks up at me with her soft brown eyes shining and her tongue lolling, I can’t help but forgive her–sinking my fingers into her soft fur and petting her the way I’ve come to learn that she likes.me n my dog

For the first time ever in my life–a dog has chosen me as it’s person. I’m sure it is due to the dedication, adoration, understanding and support that I’ve shown her. We just seem to connect–she understands me, and I understand her. And we’re there for each other.

It’s a beautiful thing–that relationship between man and dog. And she truly is my best friend.

Like the pioneers

using livestock to reclaim this old farm

We could have bought a homestead better suited to farming, better set up–some New England style farmhouse with an attached barn, or a garage with an outbuilding we could convert into a shed for the livestock.  Perhaps it would have had a sprawling pasture, an established garden however humble it may be, and a berry patch.

runamuk acres in the 1960s
This is a picture of our farm from the 1960s–you can see the old barn standing in the distance.

It would have been so much easier to take that route, move our small apiary there and grow this farm. But we chose to cling to this piece of land that the Burns family are connected to.  This overgrown, rambling and run-a-muck property that has forever been known within the family as “the Farm”.

If you’d seen it a year ago, you’d never have known that it was a small family farm–once upon a time, or fifty years ago.

Hell–if you saw it today you might not know that it’s a farm now!

Like the pioneers, we are taking back the land, erecting sheds for livestock,  growing food for our family (and even a little for the community), and eeking an existence out of the wilderness for our farm. A friend of mine stopped by the farm a few weeks ago, to see how we’re coming along–and that was what she told me; that we are “like the pioneers”.

using livestock to reclaim this old farm
Miranna and the other critters are helping us reclaim this old farm.

And she was absolutely right.  We’ve settled in this territory, which–for all intensive purposes may as well have never been settled or developed, and we’re building a farm here. This year has been all about getting the infrastructure in place that we need to progress Runamuk Acres as a viable farm-business.  That means that gardens, livestock shed, chicken coop, equipment shed, growing structure (hoop-house or high-tunnel), and food storage–all need to be in place before winter gets underway.  Like the pioneers, this first year is all about getting ready for winter–getting set up to endure the long cold months ahead, and coming out of the winter better set up and poised to work this land, continuing to build our farm on this run-a-muck property.

using sheep to reclaim this old farm
We’re using goats to clear the brambles, while the sheep are used to reclaim what remains of the pastures.

sheep at runamukThese tasks are made more difficult by the lack of open spaces to put new buildings or growing spaces–which is why the livestock are such an integral part of our plans. Livestock not only provide food for our family–they are clearing the land for us, and without the use of heavy machinery.

It’s been a struggle this year, to get underway–gaining momentum and stemming the torrential tide that is Mother Nature taking back what is rightfully Hers–but progress has been made.

The new garden at an eighth of an acre is a huge accomplishment, the acquisition of goats, chickens, and sheep, our first fenced paddock, and investments in irrigation equipment, electric fencing, and a number of other tools necessary for building a farm–are all significant achievements for us.

It’s slow progress, but it’s progress all the same.

There’s something so right–so comforting–about this work that seems to make the overwhelming chaos of our situation worth the struggle.

farming pioneers
This is our ram–Darth Vader, or Darth for short.

I don’t know if it’s this way for every homesteader and farmer, but for me it’s a joy to go out in the early morning–rain or shine–to feed the animals that we are now responsible for.  Carting hay and hauling water are a privilege, and feeding the four-legged critters is the reward for hefting fifty-pound bags of feed.

Sun-ripened tomatoes, plucked from the vine and popped into my mouth still warm are the compensation for sitting on my knees in the garden, pulling weeds under the hot sun and sticky humidity for hours.  A tub of cucumbers is the result of an hour spent spraying fish emulsion while the black flies swarm in my face.

It may not sound like much of an endowment, but these chores are the building blocks for the relationships the farmer is creating with the livestock, with the land, and that relationship is my prize.

farming like the pioneers
Is it odd that my chickens talk to me???

When I step outside, the chickens come running; when I walk down to the garden, passing the paddock where the goats spend their days–they greet me by bleating loudly, coming to the fence to see what I am up to.  The sheep have not been here long, but they have come to expect me with their twice-daily ration of hay, and they are becoming more comfortable in their new home.  The garden lies under the late-summer sun, teaming with life–beneficial insects and birds are welcomed by flowers planted amid the vegetables as a strategy against the unwelcome dinner guests munching my crops; it is a haven.

Sure we could have bought an established homestead, it would certainly have been an easier path to the creation of our farm and my vision for Runamuk–but it’s this land–this “farm” that calls to me.  It draws me like a moth to the flame, and I am as unable to resist the it as I am unable to hold back the ocean tides.

It’s overwhelming to say the least–the amount of work we have laid out before us, and I imagine the pioneers must have felt the same way; but we keep one foot in front of the other–tackling one chore at a time.  When one task is completed, we reevaluate the to-do list for the next pressing–most urgent project that needs to be done.  And in this manner, we are making progress, slowly and surely.

Stay tuned, folks!

Fallen Knight

fallen farm dog

fallen farm dogIt is with a heavy heart that I share this news with you.

In the wee-hours of the morning on Sunday, July 20th, our brave little dog Ava ferociously faced off with one of the forest’s wild creatures, and lost her battle.  We did not see the animal that took her life, so we cannot say for sure what it was, but we suspect that it was either a fox or a fisher.  Since Keith saw the very large fox that made off with all but one of our five guinea fowl (the last one was dead, and we had her for dinner, lest her sacrifice be in vain) earlier in the season, we suspect the fox.

We adopted Ava from the Somerset Humane Society in February of 2012, a cross between a beagle and a jack russel terrier, she had the nose, mouth and bark of the beagle, and the energy of the terrier–we often joked about the combination of traits.

ava on the prowl
Ava would follow her nose anywhere–she often got wrapped up in tracking whatever fabulous scent she’d discovered.

She wasn’t at all what we went into the shelter for–neither Keith nor I are big fans of small dogs–but the kids fell in love with her, and we knew she would make a great family dog, so we acquiesced.  Ava has been a beloved member of our family ever since.

When we lived in-town, Ava liked to sit on the back of the couch so that she could look out the window and bark at passersby on the street.  She got so accustomed to the back of the couch that it became her favorite place to sleep–right behind your head while you sat watching TV.

Ava’s death has hit Keith hardest of all–the kids may have picked the dog, but the dog picked her owner, and she chose Keith from the moment she arrived home.  She was an anxious little dog, always wanting to be with her people, loathing being left alone, and she relished Keith’s calm, steadfast nature.  He always denied it–but she was his dog, and I think she grew on him.

She had this peculiar habit of sleeping under covers–whether it was on the couch, or in her doggie bed–Ava liked to snuggle under a blanket.  And when Keith slept, she would worm her way under the blankets to sleep beside him.

Since moving our farm into the woods, Ava has been our main line of defense against the wilderness critters.  I often joked that she might not even know what she was barking at–it could have been a mouse rustling the leaves on the forest floor for all she knew, but she barked at it anyway.  I know for a fact that her incessant barking has kept the deer out of the garden, and I am certain, that if it weren’t for Ava’s tenacity we would have lost many more of our chickens to that monster fox than we have.

ava the farm dogI do not regret the life we gave her, that we saved her from the shelter, drew her into our home and hearts–but I do regret the horrible end that came to her.  Keith tracked her into the forest, found the site where she was killed, still wet with Ava’s blood, only her collar left behind, and the distinctive path of her body having been dragged away.  I can only hope that it was a quick death, but I do not know, and my mind and heart fears that she suffered cruelly.

Poor Ava.  Alone in the forest in the dark of night, a gruesome death met this sweet, gentle little dog, and that is a burden I will carry with me forever.  She loved this land–being free to run and roam, following her keen beagle-nose wherever the scent took her, she loved this farm and this family, and she died protecting it.  She will always be a hero to us, she gave her life for Runamuk, for our farm and my dreams, and she will be missed.

Rest in peace Ava.  You will always have a piece of our hearts.  We love you.

Market garden in progress

My farmers’ tan is a testament to the amount of time I’ve been spending in the market garden lately, working long hours in the sun and in drizzling rain to get crops in the ground.  It’s an on-going process, and there’s also successive sowings to think about–and the fall crops to keep in mind.

So far I’ve managed to get onions in, 3 types of peas, leaf lettuce mix, spinach, 2 types of carrots, 2 varieties of beets, rutabaga, 5 varieties of potatoes, 2 different kinds of snap beans, 12 varieties of tomatoes and 2 of peppers, and some heading lettuce.  And so far things are growing well.

Onions 2014
We have Ailsa Craig for fresh-eating, and Patterson onions for storing.
peas 2014
I’m growing Sugar Ann and Sugar Snap peas–they have the edible pods which are fabulous for snacking or sauteing (so good!), and Little Marvel for shelling peas.

The next two days are dedicated to planting cucumbers with sunflowers, pole beans, and radishes.  Then on to the squashes, followed by broccoli, cabbages, and collards.  And don’t forget all of the allies and friends–the herbs and flowers that either protect the crops, or attract beneficial insects to combat pest problems.

We’re hard at work here at Runamuk–so stay tuned for more updates!

Welcome Willow!

willow runamuk's new dog

This week we added the first of many new animals to our growing farm–Willow the livestock guardian dog!

willow the livestock guardianWillow is a great pyrenees/anatolian shepherd cross.

willow runamuk's new dogThe Great Pyrenees breed–or the Pyrenean Mountain Dog is an old breed that has been used by shepherds for hundreds of years.  Developed in southern France and northern Spain where the steep mountain slopes required agility, the pyrenees is naturally nocturnal and aggressive with predators who might harm its flock.  Typically the breed is confident, gentle and affectionate–particularly with kids–and patient.

The Anatolian, on the other hand, originated in Turkey, also as a livestock guardian dog.  They are a large, rugged breed, that is very independent and loyal.

At 5 months old Willow is already the size of a golden retriever or a lab, she is super sweet and eager to please, loving and affectionate, and gentle with the two Burns brothers.  Willow and Ava (our rescue dog–a jack russle/beagle mix we brought home from the animal shelter 2 years ago) are becoming fast friends, and she likes the kitties too (we have 3).  Though we don’t make it a point of indulging the habit–he has a thing for chips that is rather endearing.  It doesn’t seem to matter the type–tortilla, ruffles, etc. though I was told by her former owner that Willow particularly likes Doritos, lol.  I think it’s the crispy crunch that she enjoys most. 😉

We are thrilled to have her here with us.  I know she is going to be a good addition to the family–and the farm.

What is the driving force behind the Runamuk farm?

conservation driving runamuk
nature conservation at runamuk
Every creature, plant, and force on Earth has a part to play in the global ecosystem.

“What a hideous plant!  Isn’t it terrific!?”

“Oh my gawd–check out this spider!  Look at all those long legs!”

These are not exclamations of repulsion, but terms of endearment uttered by myself and our family.  We truly love nature.  To us the Earth is a marvel; there is beauty in even the ugliest of plants, the homeliest of animals–even rocks are special because they are connected to the Earth.

For our family, Runamuk is not just a farm.  Keith and I do not want merely to be farmers–we want to be conservationists.  We believe that all of the interconnected systems (weather, pollination, food chains, etc.) that make up the functioning global ecosystem are crucial, and we believe it should all be protected and preserved for future generations.

Why bother with environmental conservation?

Since the start of the industrial revolution, Earths’ landscapes have been intensely affected by human development.  Native grasslands, forests and wetlands in many of the world’s more highly populated areas have all but been eliminated.  Urban development and natural resource exploration is increasing dramatically and continues to significantly impact Earth’s remaining natural landscapes.  These changes have resulted in stresses to numerous species of native plant and animal life, reducing biodiversity, as well as soil, water, and air.

We believe that a healthy ecosystem means a more productive and more profitable farm.  We know that managing a productive farm can be compatible with the needs of wildlife–that promoting soil health will promote lush plant growth, which will provide us with larger, more bountiful crops, while at the same time sequestering carbon and improving the atmosphere.  Conserving wild places on our property allows for the preservation of existing wildlife, and creating new habitat allows that wildlife to flourish and thrive.

We feel it is our moral duty to do be good stewards of this planet, and if we can only affect change on this parcel of property that we’ve been granted, than we will do just that.

Why pollinators?

But why insects?  And why bees?  They sting! 

Native pollinators are facing threats from many sources, including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, intensive farming and ranching practices, and urban development.

Pollinators are a keystone species–much of life on Earth can be linked to the simple act of pollination in one way or another.  Remember the food chains from elementary school?  The insects pollinate the flowers, the birds eat the insects, the fox eats the bird, and the coyote eats the fox.

conservation driving runamukDon’t like coyotes?  How about owls?  The bees pollinate the flowers, flowers turn into fruits (lets say berries, for this example), mice eat the berries, and the owl eats the mouse.

There are an infinite number of scenarios linking wildlife to pollination–one that even includes mankind.

What would we do without flowering plants?  Sure, we’d still have food–wind pollinated crops like oats, corn, and rice.  But the diversity of food–the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that give our bodies the vitamins and minerals that we need–would not be available to us, or to any other creature who depends upon them for survival.

Plants and pollinators have evolved together over the last 130 million years.  It’s an intimate relationship, and when you watch an insect alight upon a flower, delve deeply into it’s petals to sip the rewarding nectar that the plant is offering, and emerge dusted in pollen granules, you’re watching an ancient partnership being carried out.  Without the animal pollinators, flowering plants could not exist.  And without the food that flowering plants provide these animals, many of them could not survive either.  Whether we like them or not, insects are an integral part of life on Earth.

At Runamuk, we know that providing and protecting habitat for pollinators is a benefit to the entire ecosystem.

How will you accomplish pollinator conservation at Runamuk?

We have two-fold approach to establishing pollinator conservation here at the Runamuk Farm and Apiary.  The first part involves providing the basic pollinator habitat components that native pollinators need to thrive.  The second revolves around public education and outreach, teaching others why these insects are so important and how others can help pollinators in their own backyards.

Providing pollinator habitat

Our long term plan for using livestock to reclaim the old pastures is entirely geared toward providing pollinator habitat here at the Runamuk farm, with the added benefit of raising food for our family and generating an income all at the same time.  Once we’ve opened the land up once more, we will plant an assortment of different pastures and wildflower meadows.

Forage crops:  Grassy pastures were once common place in the rural agricultural setting, but have in recent years become less and less common as farming has been abandoned.  Pastures offer native bees a veritable foraging buffet of nectar and pollen sources.  What’s more, many forage crops depend on, or are improved by pollination for seed formation–alfalfa, clovers, and vetch for example, all benefit from pollination.

In addition to providing food for native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, these forage crops will also provide us with our own livestock feed, reducing our need for off-farm inputs and thus increasing our self-sufficiency and improving the sustainability of the Runamuk farm.

Wildflower meadows:  Pollinators need a succession of blooms offering them food throughout the entire foraging season, from early spring, through the fall.  By planting a selection of native wildflowers, grasses, and flowering shrubs and trees, we can enhance the habitat we’re offering pollinators on the farm.

Taking this concept a step further, we can plant one meadow with plants geared toward native bees, while another can be geared specifically toward butterflies.  We plan to install a series of meadows, all interconnected by a network of trails.

conservation driving runamuk
“Bee Hotel” Just one example of a native bee nesting site. Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Nesting sites:  With more than 270 native species of bees in Maine, we need to offer a variety of nesting sites to optimize the diversity of pollinators here on the farm.  We plan to utilize as many natural nest sites as possible–such as leaving select dead trees, which beetles will drill into, and later abandon, leaving empty holes that bees use to lay their eggs in.  But we also plan to establish a number of native bee “hotels” and nest boxes.

We’ll also set up nesting boxes for butterflies, bats, and a variety of birds, with the aim of creating a diverse and healthy ecosystem.

Water sources:  Every living creature on the planet needs water, and as part of our permaculture design, water conservation will be worked into our landscape designs.  Our property is already water-rich, even despite the fact that we have neither stream or lake, but by creating swales and ponds, we can collect the water and make better use of it.

Conservation and protection:  Through careful observation and assessment of our property, we can determine which areas on the farm already promote habitat for pollinators.  Those areas we can leave, conserving the population that exists there, and protecting them for future generations of native bees and butterflies.

We can also keep the existing pollinator populations in mind when we decide to manage any area–performing landscaping or site maintenance when it poses the least harm to the insects, such as late in the fall once the brood-rearing and foraging season is over.

Offering education and outreach

The second half of our plan to promote pollinator conservation is involves establishing Runamuk as an education center, and working with the public to teach folks more about bees and pollinators.

The Runamuk Education Center:  Our network of walking and hiking trails will make Runamuk a tourist destination.  Guided or self-guided tours through our various wildflower meadows and forests, skirting grassy pastures and serene ponds, and exploring the barns, offers the public the opportunity to connect with nature, learn more about pollinators, and see what sustainable farming at Runamuk is all about.

With a shady picnic area, and a cordwood constructed building to house our education center, school children can come to the farm on field trips, we can host a variety of workshops related to pollinator conservation or sustainable living, and offer numerous events to promote agritourism on the farm.

Promoting pollinator conservation through public outreach:  Runamuk is already becoming known as a local authority for pollinator conservation.  In the last 4 years I’ve established and become president of the Somerset Beekeepers, been invited to speak at a number of local venues about bees, beekeeping, and pollinator conservation, written for the state beekeeping journal, the county master gardener journal, and created an online presence as a pollinator advocate.  As we continue to grow our farm and work toward our goal of creating an education center, I can only hope that our influence continues to grow with it.

Not just a farm

Because we’ve chosen to incorporate conservation with agriculture, Runamuk is more than your ordinary farm.  Our passion for wildlife and our desire to live sustainably on our land is evident in every aspect of our farm plans, and by focusing our conservation efforts on native pollinators as a keystone species we’re able to do the greatest good.

After 4 years of micro-farming, Runamuk is set to move forward with it’s expansion, keeping wildlife and pollinator conservation at the heart of our mission because we know it is our duty to be good stewards upon this Earth.

 

Gearing up for spring; planning Runamuk’s farm expansion

planning for a tractor
gearing up for spring
My planning board includes to-do lists, visual inspiration and examples, reminder notes, and a calendar to keep us on track.

Mother Nature brought us a whopping 12-14 inches of snow last week, forcing me to postpone the first class of bee-school, and while I’m sure we’ll get more snow between now and then, the first day of spring is just 6 weeks away now.  Here at Runamuk, Keith and I are gearing up for the rush of the growing season.  We have a lot of projects to accomplish this year in order to expand our farm, so we’ve prioritized them, and organized them, with the idea that careful planning and preparation will lead to success.

In order to increase the revenue that the farm is bringing in, we’ve decided to invest our time and money in 4 key areas.  Livestock, garden, kickstart and marketing, with more minor investments into the apiary and homestead infrastructure.

Focus Projects

Livestock at Runamuk

Since our land requires a lot of reclaiming to gain good ground for future pastures and meadows, we’ve decided to use livestock to gently work the land.  This year we will be bringing goats, pigs, and poultry to the farm.  While the production of livestock for meat will largely serve only our own family to start, we know that in the next few years we want to be able to offer our sustainably-produced meats to the communities that we serve.

Goats

Fort Knox for Goats:  Goats love to browse on brush and brambles, and we certainly have plenty of that here at Runamuk!  The idea is to first construct what I’ve deemed as “Fort Knox”, a rugged, permanent housing facility with a large adjoining paddock that is securely fenced.  Once “Fort Knox” is established, we can then think about investing in moveable electric fencing, which we can use to rotate livestock about the property to reclaim one area at a time.

Milk for the Family:  We plan to have just a couple of dairy goats to provide our family with milk, since the Burns boys go through an incredible amount of milk every week (I did the math, and we’re currently spending more than $700 a year on milk! and that’s with careful rationing.).  I already have 2 goats from 5 Seasons Farm in Liberty, Maine that I bartered a honeybee Nuc for last year, but was unable to take due to the delay in our move.  This spring they will come to Runamuk.

Meat Goats:  The other goats will be Boar goats–for the start of our meat-goat herd.  I hope to invest in at least one good breeding doe, and a couple of wethers, the later to be slaughtered in the fall, to provide our family with meat through the winter.  The doe will be bred in the fall, in hopes that she will provide us with new additions to our herd next spring.

Looking Ahead:  Next year we would invest in 1-2 more does to increase genetic diversity in the herd, but we likely will not bring a buck to the farm until we have half a dozen or more does, or until we’re ready to erect housing for him and his cronies (even a billy goat has to have someone to keep him company!).

Pigs

Another tool in our arsenal, forest-raised pigs are excellent at converting recently cut forest land directly to pasture.

According to Joel Salatin, the successional sequence after logging is to go quickly to briars and brambles–not grass.  Then the stumps prevent mowing to control this lush regrowth.  He says pigs love the roots of these early succession plants, and could largely clear cut-over land by gnawing tree roots and the bark of young saplings.

Depending on how many pork CSA shares we are able to pick up, Keith and I plan to raise 2-4 pigs in the area where we want to expand the gardens in the next couple of years.  They’ll have a shelter for the summer, and electric fencing, and any grains we feed them after their roots-and-greens diet will be strictly GMO-free.

Poultry

The majority of our birds will be chickens, but we also intend to have guinea fowl to help with the ticks, and possibly ducks and geese too.

This is another case of constructing a “Fort Knox” for the birds, from which they will be able to come and go on a free-range system.  Next year we will construct our version of a chicken tractor or moveable coop, and invest in lightweight, moveable electric net fencing to rotate the birds along behind the goats and pigs to help with pasture management.

We will have eggs available at the Madison Farmers’ Market, and at the end of the summer, meat for our family’s freezer.

Runamuk’s Gardens

The gardens are another key component of Runamuk’s farm expansion, and encompasses a number of projects.

Vegetable gardens: This year we will break ground on 3 new gardens, totaling approximately 5200 square feet of growing space.  Using wide beds, along with intensive and successional plantings, these gardens will not only feed our family and provide us with crops for preserving and storing into next winter, but also provide the fresh produce for our CSA and farmers’ market stand.  We’ll stick to our commitment to heirloom crops, and invest in irrigation equipment.  I’ve just sent out orders for seeds, onion plants, seed potatoes, and garlic seed for fall planting.

Seedling production: We bought all the supplies for our mini high-tunnel, which I will use to grow seedlings for the gardens, as well as seedlings to sell at market.  Annual and perennial seedlings raised bee-friendly, without the use of insecticides, fungicides, or herbicides.

gearing up for spring on the farm
I tagged all the over-topping trees in the orchard so that Keith can go through with his chainsaw.

Reclaiming the Orchard: We’ve already been in the old abandoned orchard assessing how best to proceed with saving the apple trees.  I’ve tagged the over-topping trees that need to come out in order to allow more sunlight to reach the apple trees.  There are some trees that are entirely dead, others with a significant amount of dead wood, and others who look largely healthy.  We will harvest the dead wood to use in smoking meat later in the fall, and prune the best trees to promote regrowth.  I’m really excited to bring life back to the orchard, and looking forward to grafting new varieties onto some of our existing trees in the up-coming years.

Composting system:  This is a two-fold project, along with a 3-bin system for composting household food wastes, garden waste materials, manure and more, Keith and I are working to establish Runamuk as the repository for leaves in the communities of Madison and Anson.  We know that a mulch program like this will benefit our farm as well as the towns, and we want to get it underway as soon as possible.

Looking Ahead:  Moving forward with our farm expansion, we intend for seedlings to play a large role in our diverse income. Offering the annuals our local gardeners need, along with nursery plants that include native perennials, and young shrubs and trees–all grown without pesticides in order to be Bee-Friendly.  In the next couple of years we will erect our first full-sized high-tunnel, further expand our gardens, and break ground on the nursery, planting the first plugs for future trees and shrubs.

Wildflower meadows will be a key component to Runamuk and our pollinator education center–meadows geared toward native bees, another for butterflies, etc.  We will erect a variety of native bee nesting sites, birdhouses, bat-boxes, and more, with walking paths, a picnic area, and a learning center where we can hold different workshops.

Runamuk’s Kickstarter Campaign

farm planningThe livestock are an integral part of our plan to make all this happen, but livestock can only do so much of the work in reclaiming these overgrown pastures.  A tractor is going to be an essential tool moving forward with our farm expansion.

We have many trees to be felled (we’ll leave as many as possible, and a 10-acre section untouched on the far west end of the farm, but that still leaves a 40-acre forest to contend with and there are going to be a lot of trees that have to go), swales to be dug for permaculture irrigation, new gardens to be plowed, compost to be turned, and much more.  We’ve decided to utilize Kickstarter’s crowd-funding platform to raise money for this large investment.

We’ve already planned out our reward system, which will include things like bee-themed Thank You cards that I will draw by hand myself (didn’t know I was artistic, didjya???), our handcrafted beeswax soap, raw honey, Runamuk t-shirts, and native-bee nesting boxes–just to name a few.

The plan is to launch the campaign in August–so stay tuned for updates!

Marketing for Success

An essential component of any business, my mind seems to be continually thinking about how better to get the word out there about Runamuk and what we have to offer.  This year, marketing our farm is dual purpose–promoting our farm and blog not only helps to gear us up for the Kickstarter campaign, it also increases our visibility in our community, and–hopefully–generates sales).

The Runamuk Blog:  I’ve been hard at work on the blog, adding new content and working with other bloggers to increase the readership on our site.  Our seasonal newsletter will build our mailing list, which we can later use to share the news of our fundraising project, and promoting my articles and posts, along with current goings-ons via social network sites helps grow our following.

Going Old-School:  I haven’t forgotten the real world either, I’m hoping that my old-school flyers and brochures generate subscribers to our CSA, which will bring in some much needed funds for some of these projects.  And our presence at the Madison Farmers’ Market will not go unnoticed either.

Investing in Marketing Materials:  I’ve just ordered new professional-looking business cards, and this summer for the first time ever, the Runamuk truck will be adorned with magnetic advertizing promoting the farm, all of which I ordered through Vistaprint during their “Big-Sale”, which gave me a discount of half-off on these valuable materials.  We also plan to put up a farm-sign at the end of Burns Road–this will be the first time we’ve ever had a roadside sign.

Minor Projects

The Apiary

apiary plans for runamuk 2014Taking a Step Back:  Having pushed my girls rather hard over the last 2 years, focused on increasing the numbers of my hives, I’ve decided to take a step back from that this year.  While I do still hope to add at least a few new colonies to my apiaries–I’m going to wait and see how the season progresses before I set a particular number in stone.  I’ve learned over the last few years that the weather does not always favor making splits and nucs, and that sometimes splitting a hive before they’re really ready can be detrimental.  So this year I’m going to let the bees tell me if and when they’re ready.

Location, location, location:  I have had my eye on what I think will be a great location for Runamuk’s main apiary, but we’ll need to clear some saplings in order to gain access to this grassy knoll, and fell a few trees to open the clearing up enough to provide the hives with the sunlight they need.  Once we’ve done that we can move the hives there and sit them so that they can soak up the sun on this south-facing slope.

Native Bee Nest Sites:  This year, too, I’d like to set up my first “Native-Bee Hotel”, to start our good work as native bee conservationists, promoting native bees on our property.

Processing License:  The biggest concern regarding the apiary is preparing our kitchen to pass inspection so that we can gain our Home Processing License.  Last year Tracy and Rick Kniffin of Kniffin’s Specialty Meats in Madison, generously allowed us to use their commercial kitchen to extract and bottle our honey.  However using our own kitchen would make things much easier, and allow us to expand into other processed foods.

Homestead Infrastructure

While our main priorities this year largely involve projects that will bring a return on our investments, there are some basic components we need to have in place before next winter just to support our own family.

Cold-Storage:  In order to preserve the root crops we grow for our family’s winter consumption, we plan to put in some form of cold-storage system.  The scale of the cold storage system will be dependent on the success of the kickstarter campaign, since a tractor will enable us to dig into the hillside to hollow out a cavity, which Keith could build a structure into, and then berm the structure using the tractor once again.  Without a tractor a cold-storage is still possible, but it would be considerably smaller–such as a discarded freezer buried in the ground, or maybe just a couple of garbage cans buried in the ground.

Dehydrator:  Another key piece of the infrastructure for our family homestead is the solar dehydrator, which will allow us to dry tomatoes, apples, herbs, and more for winter storage.  I’m hoping Keith will find time to slap something together for me to utilize, however I’ve seen plans that require little more than a screen, and should there be no other options, it will still be possible for me to dry foods for storage.

Starting Seeds and Waiting for Spring

For the most part we’re in a state of limbo, waiting for spring to arrive, and the snow to melt.  However we’ve been able to get a tentative start on some of these projects–like the orchard, and our marketing campaign is underway.  This week the mini high-tunnel is going up and I will be able to get started soon sowing seeds.  I’m anxious to get started, but at the same time trying to enjoy these last few weeks of relative quiet before all hell breaks loose! lol!  😉

Bringing back the Runamuk CSA

green sprouting calabrese broccoli

green sprouting calabrese broccoli

I’m really excited to announce that this year, Runamuk will be reinstating it’s CSA!

Some of my followers might remember our CSA program from 2012–which I put on hold during 2013 in the face of our impending move.  I learned a lot about farming and business that year, and we will carry those lessons with us as we move forward and Runamuk continues to grow.

Changes to the program

We’ll be making some significant changes to the way we do our CSA this year.  One of the biggest challenges to our 2012 CSA was the delivery of shares.  I’d hoped that by offering delivery I would entice locals to subscribe–and that worked–we gained 11 subscribers for our micro-farm’s little CSA, we forged new relationships with locals and strengthened relationships with friends and family through the CSA.  But those deliveries were a huge drain on my time when I should have been tending to the crops I was growing for those shareholders.

With that knowledge, as we move forward, Runamuk will no longer offer delivery of CSA shares.  We’ve decided to utilize a different model for our CSA program–known as the “market CSA pick up”–or sometimes referred to as a “debit-style CSA”.

How it works

Basically, members establish a credit account with the farm and shop at our booth during farmers’ market; each week the shareholders’ account is debited the exact amount they spend.  You can spend as much or as little as you want each week, purchase only those things you and your family like to eat.  The remaining balance on your account rolls over to the following week.

There is no customer commitment to picking up produce every single week.  You decide when to purchase vegetables with your debit balance.  Shop as your schedule permits, skip weeks when you’re out of town.

brune d'hiverChoose the quantities and types of produce you want from anything that is available at the Runamuk booth.  If you want vegetables, buy vegetables; if you want a jar of honey, no need to bring cash, you’ve already pre-paid for it!  We’ll be offering seedlings this spring, eggs, a diverse array of vegetables, honey, beeswax products like our soaps and salves–these CSA accounts will be good for any product that Runamuk has to offer.  The only catch is–you have to come to market to get it.

Bonus rewards

We are offering to members who sign up by April 1st a 10% bonus on their investment, but the earlier you sign up the bigger your bonus reward will be.  Also, if you participate in one of our work-days this summer, or volunteer your time working on the farm, we’ll credit your account with an additional $25.

Support local farms

CSA programs like ours offer farmers a much needed influx of cash at a time of the year when they need it most; in return shareholders get to know their farmer better and get the freshest, highest quality foods.  There are lots of great things happening at Runamuk this year–for more details on our CSA program please check out the “CSA Information” page.

Carpe Diem: 2014; Moving forward with our farm expansion

solstice gifts from santa

We’re finally moved in at the new homestead and the family is settling back into our familiar routines.  With my kitchen unpacked, I am at long last able to get back to my typical Sunday baking habit–admittedly, homemaking (cooking, baking, cleaning, etc.) is not my most favorite of activities, but baking my own breads really seems to make a place feel like home–I had not realized how much I missed it.

Home for the solstice

solstice gifts from santamaine ice storm 2013

 

We were able to celebrate the Winter Solstice here, and we’ve enjoyed 2 snow storms and an ice storm since we moved in.  The hillside and the forest is serene with it’s blanket of white, and the coating of glistening ice sparkles in the sunlight.  I am happy and content, feeling complete once again.

 

trees in icespruce in iceThe only thing that was missing was a connection to the outside world.  A brand new home needs a brand new installation of phone lines, and with so many storms in the forecast, our phone company couldn’t get to us for 2 weeks.  Yesterday they finally made it out here, and now I am able to take phone calls again on a secure land-line, respond to emails, and return to blogging in full-force.

A faux farmer

maine ice storm 2013_hives in ice

 

For years I have been practicing living sustainably, micro-farming on our 1-acre leased lot in-town, keeping bees on other farmers’ property–I was farming in practice, but I felt like a fake.  Now that we are finally living in our own home on our own land, I can feel like a real farmer.  It is our property to do with what we please.

A New Years’ theme

I’ve mentioned before my practice of assigning a theme to each year, rather than abiding by the traditional practice of  setting New Years’ resolutions that will ultimately fail–I think long and hard about all of the things that I want to accomplish in the up-coming year, and try to determine what all those goals and aspirations have in common.  To me, even the simplest word can have power if you can identify with it on a personal level, and that can give you strength and courage to sustain yourself throughout the year.  At least–that’s how I see it, and it works for me.

Sometimes it takes me weeks or months to determine the best word or phrase for my up-coming year.  I start thinking about this stuff well in advance of the new year.  But this year, my theme came to me without struggle or delay.  In fact, before Thanksgiving I already knew what my theme for 2014 would be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA phineas and ferb gingerbread house

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the same theme that we used for our gingerbread house in the Madison Holiday Gingerbread Competition.  A theme that has surfaced throughout 2013 on several occasions, and it only seems fitting that we use it to propel us forward into 2014 as we set to work expanding our farm.

Carpe diem is Latin for “Seize the Day”.  And that is absolutely what I intend to do.

Goals for 2014

We have a long list of projects to get done this first year–whereas before when we lived out here, we were adrift, unsure of our paths in life, now Keith and I know what we want, where we are going, and we are determined to see it through.  Runamuk is a dream–a farm and lifestyle that will sustain our lives, and that of our children, with the notion that when they are grown with families of their own we will have something significant, something meaningful to leave them–this farm and all that it stands for is our legacy, our gift to future generations of Burnses.

Some of the projects for this year include:

  • old apple orchardReclaiming the old apple orchard.
  • Cleaning up the property.
  • Build housing for goats, chickens, and rabbits.
  • Construct summer shelters for pigs and broiler birds.
  • Erecting fencing for livestock.
  • Install a water collection system.
  • Create a cold-storage facility for food preservation.
  • Establish 2 new gardens–one of which will be cover cropped this first year.
  • Put up a mini high-tunnel for seedling propagation–sell seedlings at farmers’ market to fund expansion of farm.
  • Locate and map wild edibles on the property.
  • Assess wildlife populations.
  • Build a solar dehydrator to assist in food preservation.
  • Put up a clothesline.
  • Make and/or invest in signage (a farm sign at the end of the road, magnetic signs for the RUnamuk truck, t-shirts)
  • Launch Kickstarter campaign to fund the investment in a tractor.

And of course, there’s the continued expansion of the apiary–this year I hope to reach 18 hives, and I’m hoping that having this brand new kitchen, complete with dishwasher, will allow me to get a home processor’s license for honey processing in the summer and fall.

Funding our farm expansion

Just because all of these things are on the list, does not mean they will be accomplished, I accept that fact and look at the list as more of a goal for the year.  It all comes down to time and money.  In addition to sales at farmers’ market and on the farm, we will have about $2000 out of our tax return to invest in Runamuk, so now that I am back online I am looking into grants for beginning farmers and for women farmers–I’ll keep you posted on that.  😉

Let’s get started!

I have a great list of blog-posts to work through–now that we are here and I’m online again–preparations for the up-coming bee-school I will be teaching on behalf of the Somerset Beekeepers, and planning for the 2014 Madison Farmers’ Market.  So much to do, and I am eager to get started!

Happy New Years!

Runamuk is finally going home!

runamuk apiary_dec 2013

runamuk apiary_dec 2013There were times when the obstacles seemed insurmountable, times when I all but despaired of ever reaching my goal–when the dream of returning to the forested hillside where I found my salvation appeared forever out of reach; but I am finally able to say that yesterday, Friday, December 13th of this year 2013–we met with the lawyer handling our real estate deal to sign the documents on our mortgage.

Recap

We left the property in 2009–if you recall, because the trailer we were living in there was literally rotting around us–it had been through a flood and there was damage to the roof, mold grew and festered like a plague, and with a child suffering from asthma it seemed dire that we improve our housing situation.  At that point we did not own the land, and had yet to prove that we could manage any property, but still–looking back on it now, I can’t help but wonder if there might have been a better option.

Anyway we left–came to town to live in a small home on a one-acre lot in town–5 miles from our precious farmland.  It was a rough transition for me; I suppose I had grown a bit “Woods-Queer” as some would call it.  Accustomed to daily walks in the forest, or along the dirt road; being back in town surrounded by neighbors I felt awkward and out of place.  I think it wasn’t until I set my sights upon bees that I regained my footing.

The bees were my lifeline–my connection to the natural world, which seems so much more difficult to feel in town.  It’s funny–I know that nature is always there, it is all around us everywhere we go, but the hard concrete and metal, the buildings and the automobiles, stifle the natural rhythms of nature.  And I am someone who must feel those rhythms flowing through me, else I am lost–adrift in a noisy turbulent sea–and how can I maintain myself like that?  It is beyond me.  But the bees saved me.  Like my trees and hillside had saved me.  I devoted myself to them–I could not seem to help myself.  I still cannot help myself when it comes to bees.

A Way Home

I began to see the way home–if I could learn to make money using my skills and passion for gardening, beekeeping, and sustainable living–I could finally have the homestead I’d always dreamed of, complete with chickens, goats and pigs.  It didn’t even occur to me until after I started down that road, that what I wanted most was to be a farmer!

For a while we toyed with the idea of buying a homestead, which would have been easier than building one from the ground up–as we will have to do at the old Burns farm.  But I never found the right property, or the right home–maybe the universe knew what my heart did not yet realize–that we already have the property we were destined to farm.  We just needed to prove that we were ready and prepared to do what it takes to manage the land–that we could be good stewards of the land.  So I devised a plan to get us there, and I’ve worked tirelessly towards my goal ever since.

Legalities

Once I’d overcome all other adversity, an unexpected obstacle presented itself–one which delayed the Thanksgiving homecoming we’d been looking forward to.  Blueberry Broadcasting leases 2 acres of land from my in-laws for a radio tower at the top of the hill; while this tower does not sit on the acreage we were gifted, the original lease agreement does not specify which 2 acres the corporation has access to, it arguably gives them access to any buildings on the property–and because our parcel was-until recently–part of the property specified in that lease agreement, it meant that Blueberry would have been within their legal rights to access and utilize our new home too.

Of course the mortgage lender would not move forward until my in-laws’ lease agreement with Blueberry was amended, which was fine with us–since we wanted to be the ones to live and do business there, not provide a place of business for someone else, but the corporation has a 6-8 week legal processing time.  It seemed unreasonable to ask us to wait 2 more months when our entire lives were on the line!  Not only was this a home we were trying to move into, but also a place of business, our farm and our livelihood–and all this had to happen during the holiday season!  In between moves, with most of our belongings packed up, our holidays have been on hold–but it seems the legal world is inconsiderate of such factors.

Then, just when we thought we were finally in the clear–we were set to close on Monday–the CEO of Blueberry Broadcasting decided they wanted to change the dates of the lease agreement they held with my in-laws; a legal matter which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us or our mortgage and which delayed our move by another week!  To top it all off–this corporation charged us $700 for their legal services–the sheer audacity of this company!  I was infuriated to say the least!  Obviously they have little regard for the people they lease property from, for people in general for that matter–and definitely no consideration or appreciation for their local farmers!

They have made no friends here, I can tell you that!  I won’t forget this transgression against us, against Runamuk; it will be taken into consideration during future interactions with the company.  And that is all I will say about it here.

Struggling through adversity

In-between moves we’ve had trouble getting Fairpoint to turn on a phone-line for us, we’ve been forced to buy tracfone minutes left and right just to stay in touch with customers and family.  Add to that problems with the old heater in this house in-town eating fuel faster than usual (and it usually goes through fuel quickly in this drafty old house!), and Keith and I have felt at times as though the obstacles would yet prove to be overwhelming.  There were days when I wanted to despair, moments when I shed tears of frustration and misery, I cannot write when I am so twisted up inside, so the blog has suffered, but neither could I give up when we were so close to achieving our goal!

Home for the Solstice

Despite everything it seems fitting that we received the Deed for our acreage on the Winter Solstice last year, 2012–and that a full year later we are finally able to return home–that we will be moving into our new home just in time to celebrate the Winter Solstice on that hillside which we hold so dear.  That we will be able to start a new year there–facing a spectrum of possibilities–makes every hardship endurable.  My heart rejoices and though we know that hard work lies ahead of us–Keith and I are eager to get started, to dig in–literally–to reclaim the pastures that once sprawled across this hillside, to see livestock and wildlife abound at Runamuk, and to see the farm that once was flourish again under our care.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!  2014 looks to be a great year for Runamuk!