The Chickens Have Landed!

runamuk chicken tractors

Just over 2 weeks since Closing and I was finally able to bring the chicken flock to the Hive House. There was an unexpected kink in my moving plans that delayed their arrival and sent me prematurely into a construction project that I hadn’t entirely prepared for. The ending result was a pair of twin chicken tractors and the Runamuk flock set up on the garden at our new #foreverfarm location.

chicken tractors on pasture
The finished product: twin chicken tractors housing a total of 55 birds on the garden site.

Change in Plans

It was the nature of this particular real estate transaction that I did not have the opportunity to walk the property at leisure with an analytical eye before I bought it. Up until the day I came to the Hive House as it’s new owner, all I had to go by to prepare Runamuk and my family for the move were the pictures from the real estate listing, and Google Earth images. It wasn’t until I could tour the facilities and the land on my own that I could really take stock of the property’s assets and weaknesses.

Originally the plan had been to convert one of the barn stalls into a winter coop-space that would house the flock until after the dust settled on the #GreatFarmMove when I could then construct moveable chicken tractors to get the birds out on pasture. I had hoped to just put up a few roosts and cut a pop-hole in the back wall of the barn that would lead the chickens into a fenced yard. This space would house them through the winter, with the addition of a hoop-house off the back of the building. However, when I surveyed the barn at length for the first time I realized that was not going to work.

What I found in that back corner stall were the remnants of a dairy trough, and above that-on three walls were broad shelves where the previous owners had housed various sporting gear. It would have been challenging for me to try to take down the shelving to put up roosts and nesting boxes, but the real clincher was what lay on the outside of the back corner of the barn.

The first issue was that the entire back wall of the barn had been sheathed in sheet metal; I would have to cut into it if I intended to have a pop-hole. Secondly, the bug shack is right off that corner of the barn, with a very lovely spruce tree growing alongside it─directly in the path of my would-be hoop-house. And 3rd: there’s a pop-up garage sitting flush alongside the back of the barn.

Looking around for a more suitable spot, I decided upon the lean-to on the garage as winter coop housing for the chickens. It’s not completely enclosed, but there’s a back wall and a good roof, with solid posts and beams supporting it. Formerly this space had housed the previous owner’s snowblower and yard equipment. That would be a bigger project than the chicken tractors however, and since I want to be able to house the chickens on pasture through the remainder of the season anyway, I opted to focus on those first so I could get the birds moved over as soon as possible.

The Chicken Tractor Project

There are many different styles of chicken tractor out there; Joel Salatin has had great success with his set up, and I really like the chicksaw concept, but with my preference to use PVC in construction John Suscovich’s system was easier to adapt to meet Runamuk’s needs. With that in mind I set out to create a chicken tractor that would be small and light enough that I could move it across the pasture on my own, provides a minimum of 50-feet of roost space for Runamuk’s 50 birds, which would also offer maximum amount of nesting space without weighing the overall structure down too much.

chicken tractor twin construction
To have a moveable coop that was both small enough that I could move it alone, and could also house the entire flock comfortably, I needed not one, but TWO coops.

Striving to keep the overall structure as light as possible, I used 2x4s for the frame, 2x3s for the vertical roost supports, and 1x3s for the horizontal roosts as well as for the framing on the nesting boxes.

Half-inch schedule 40 grey PVC (which I prefer because it is UV resistant and does not degrade in the sun as quickly as the white PCV) made up my hoops, and I covered the exterior with chick-wire that was fastened to the hoops with zip-ties or stapled to the wooden frame with a light-duty staple gun.

chicken tractor nesting boxes
Nesting boxes along the length of the coop on either side allows 14 feet of nesting space per coop.

The nesting boxes hang off the sides of the coop, made up of quarter-inch exterior sheathing and this lightweight but weather-resistant material I found in the garden and cut up to serve as a flap for easy egg-collection.

chicken tractor backside
I’m using one set of wheels between the 2 coops.

The ending result was a pair of twin hoop-coop style moveable chicken tractors, each with 14 feet of nesting space and 35 feet of roost space. With tires on the back end I can use my utility dolly to hook onto the front and roll the coop forward to a new location.

Lessons in Preparation

Normally I’m extremely fastidious about preparation when it comes to construction projects, dedicating plenty of time to designing a plan and supply list. This time I was caught by surprise. When I realized I was going to have to stop everything two-thirds of the way through my #GreatFarmMove to construct housing for the flock, I merely put a sketch on paper with some dimensions and jotted down a supply list along the side of the page.

As a result of my lack of planning, there were a couple things I had overlooked and when I had to run for more supplies it was a bit of a trek from my new location in New Portland to the nearest lumber yard or hardware store in Madison. Having to run for materials or parts eats up a lot of time when living so remotely, and the chicken tractor project was a valuable lesson in preparation for life at the Hive House.

learning to use a power saw
I am now proficient with my Ryobi power saw!

I also had to learn how to use a power saw. I’ve traditionally used a simple handsaw for most construction, and asked the man in my life to do any bigger cuts that required the use of power saws. Big whirling blades of death frighten me and I’ve avoided confronting those fears, preferring smaller power tools like my drill, and my weed-whacker. However this was a bigger project with a lot of cuts and I am the man in my life now, so I decided it was time to learn this skill. I started small, with a battery-powered ryobi circular saw─it’s probably the smallest and cutest circular saw out there lol─so it was less threatening than most saws.

The Chickens Have Landed at the Hive House!

The chicken tractors are finished now, and the chickens have landed at the hive house. I have just a few more car loads this week to finish up the moving and then I think I can start unpacking lol. It feels really great to have the work-spaces that Runamuk needs─so far I’ve assembled bee equipment in the barn, wrapped soap in the upstairs craft room, and celebrated with friends in the Bug Shack. I wake up each day eager to get to the work that this farm provides me, and I go to bed each night sore, but happy. I am focused on the task at hand: growing this farm and ensuring it’s longevity. Every day is an adventure, and life is good.

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Growing season

It’s been a long few months leading up to spring and the start of the growing season. Temperatures have fluctuated unpredicatably from one week to the next, sunny and warm one week and frigid and snowing the next. But at last the weather pattern is smoothing out. I can hear the peepers in the pond at night, new shoots are poking up around the farm, and the first blush of green grass is spreading across the fields and pastures.

Big news! I’m applying for a loan!

runamuk apiaryAfter much thought and deliberation I’ve decided to apply for funding to inject some capital into my business so that I can grow it big enough to be able to support Jim’s farm financially in the not-too-distant future.

I can grow my business slowly and avoid debt, but time is against me. The Murphys can’t carry the place indefinitely, so I’ve decided to seek a loan to invest in more bees and equipment in order to scale up to a size that will allow me to generate the income needed to pay the bills and to secure Runamuk’s future on Jim’s property. There are a number of great programs available for beginning farmers and for female farmers, and I have good credit so I’m confident that I will qualify for something.

A li’l backstory

For those who are new to the Runamuk blog, Jim Murphy was the former owner of the farm that I am now leasing. He was killed tragically in a car accident in November 2013 and his property was left in the hands of his brothers. Jim was the product of one of those big baby-boomer families of the post WWII era, so he has many brothers and sisters, but other than a nephew who resides in Madison, they’re all out of state. Just as it is for me, the farm was very precious to Jim, and his family want to uphold the principles and ideals that Jim stood for: sustainable living, friends and family, and community, however it’s very difficult for the Murphys to maintain Jim’s beloved from afar.

Enter me and my pursuit to continue farming in the Madison-Anson area. I reached out to the Murphys after nearly 6 months of searching for a new home for my hives and chickens, and together we negotiated an arrangement that allowed me to get back on my feet following my divorce. The whole of Jim’s family have been nothing but supportive, understanding and encouraging since I moved into the old farmhouse last June, but eventually the property needs to be able to support itself. Runamuk needs to be able to pay the bills, because as much as I love my colleagues at Johnny’s, I do not intend to spend the majority of my life in an office cubicle. I’m a farmer first and foremost and that’s how I want to make my money─not by answering the phone. I don’t even like phones!

The plan in a nut-shell

To that end, I’ve spent the last 4 months updating Runamuk’s business plan, tailoring my plans to suit the land and the resources I have at my disposal. Bees will continue to be Runamuk’s primary focus, with the goal of establishing 10 new colonies this year, and 20 more next year─in addition to making my own nucleus colonies using the methods Mike Palmer spoke about at last fall’s MSBA conference (read more about that in this article). I’ll continue to make beeswax soaps and salves, continue to host workshops, and continue writing, but I’d like to expand my chicken flock for egg-production, and I’d like to further diversify my operation by bringing sheep to the property. Jim’s farm has about 75 acres in open pasture, so my intention is to use rotational grazing of my poultry and sheep to maintain the pasture to create prime bee-forage.

With 10 nucleus colonies ordered and due to arrive in May, I’m right down to the wire on the loan-process. I’ve been working with Farm Credit East which offers a FarmStart Loan with a discounted interest rate for beginning farmers, and the benefit of using livestock and equipment as collateral since many new farmers do not yet own the farms they’re working (like me!). I have a meeting with their representative and Somerset County loan officer this coming Wednesday.

Support staff

Farming is a lot of work and sometimes you need an extra pair of hands in order to get the job done. I’m happy to announce that I have taken on an apprentice! I don’t have the funds available to pay anyone, but in exchange for room and board I managed to wrangle some help around the farm. I also have a prospective college-student looking for work-experience on a farm in exchange for room and board over the summer. Having so much space in Jim’s big old farmhouse is proving to be a huge asset!

In the garden

One of my major goals is to produce enough food to feed my household all year, so I’ve started my tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, and ordered 75 pounds of seed-potatoes along with 350+ onion plants through Johnny’s. I’ve mapped out a garden plan and laid it out according to the available growing space. Using Johnny’s Seed-Starting Date Calculator and their Succession-Sowing Calculator (check out this link to see the various interactive tools and calculators offered on the Johnny’s website) I recorded in my farm-planner my prospective sowing dates for a diverse array of crops.

I’ve also started a myriad of perennial flowers and herbs with the intention of establishing a pollinator garden in the bed that I’ve dubbed “the Rockwall Garden”. As ever before, pollinator conservation continues to be a primary goal in my farming methods. What’s more I use some of these herbs in my salves, so it just makes good financial sense to grow and process them myself rather than buy them in. Things like echinacea, lemon balm, hyssop, lavendar and comfrey─to name a few.

To prepare those new beds for planting I laid cardboard and either mulched hay or leaves on top to smother the grasses and weeds that had grown in since Jim’s absence. The smothering method is slower than tilling, but I planned ahead and started the process last year. It’s working great for the twin-beds, but for the Rockwall Garden the weeds managed to come right up through the cardboard and mulch late last summer. So a few weeks ago I got the jump on it and laid black-plastic over every square inch of that 15’x30′ bed. I prefer to avoid plastic in most cases, but I’m serious about planting that pollinator garden so I wanted to show those weeds that I mean business!

Chickens and eggs!

laying hens at runamukThe chicks that I invested in last fall are now 6.5 months old and with the increasing daylight hours they have begun to lay. The flock is not at full egg-production just yet, but they’re gaining.

Once the pastures green up I’ll move the birds out of the barn and back across the street into a mobile coop with the intention of rotating them around the fields. My apprentice and I have spent considerable time reviewing various models for mobile coops and chicken tractors, and I’ve decided upon John Suscovich’s model. He offers a detailed plan with a materials list that saves me hours of research and planning. Check it out!

Note: For those who don’t know, I am a BIG fan of John’s. I avidly follow his “Growing Farms” podcast, and I watch all of John’s YouTube videos which are super informative. I highly recommend any beginning farmer (or even established farmers) follow John’s work.

Improving marketing & distribution

runamuk's mailboxI can sell my soaps and salves, eggs and excess produce at the Madison Farmers’ Market, but to increase sales I need to get my products further out into the world. I’ve been working on a product list to send to local retailers, and I’ll be making some changes to Runamuk’s online shopping cart to better promote my beeswax products on the world wide web. I’m also working on a media kit for the blog in hopes of recruiting local sponsors in exchange for ad-space. But I’m most excited about making a roadside sign for Runamuk; the mailbox is the closest Runamuk has come to having a business sign, and I think it’s long overdue.

Leaning my farm

At the repeated urging of John Suscovich in his podcasts and videos, I bought Ben Hartman’s “The Lean Farm“. With so much going on I’ve only gotten about halfway through the book, but the concept of reducing waste on the farm has me re-evaluating how I work and manage Runamuk. When I finally manage to finish the book I’ll do a review on the blog, but right now I’m implementing improved recordkeeping and data-mining, cleaning and organizing the farm to improve productivity, and looking for ways to eliminate waste to increase profitability.

Market season!

madison farmers marketIn between all of this, I’ve been plugging away at the Madison Farmers’ Market, for which I serve as market manager. Our local farmers’ market is held on Sundays at the Main Street Park in Madison between 10am and 2pm beginning May 1st and running through October. I’ve recently attended a workshop hosted by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets to learn how to implement and use their Harvest Bucks program so that our market can offer bonus bucks for fruits and vegetables to SNAP shoppers. Our vendors gathered together last week for a paint-party to create some new market signs, and the town of Madison sprang for a new banner for us, so I designed that with our market logo and got the banner up on the fence at the park. We have some exciting things planned this year, but that’s a whole separate blog-post, lol!

Stay the course

Things are a little tentative right now; there’s a lot riding on it and time is not on my side. It’s hard to say if I’ll actually get this loan─like I said I have good credit, I’ve worked hard to keep it that way, but I don’t like to count my chicks before they’ve all hatched. I have a plan B and a plan C waiting in the wings, but naturally plan A is the preferred course. All I can do is to stay the course. I’ll continue to put my best foot forward, continue to work hard, and continue to have faith that things will all work out. Stay tuned folks!