It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the idea of walking away from Jim’s farm, and I fully admit that some days it’s still a struggle to accept defeat. As a beginning farmer, it’s already been a long journey with many twists and turns in the road, obstacles overcome and fears faced along the way, and this wayward traveler is weary. This farmer is ready to put down roots to begin the hard work of building a forever-farm, and these false-starts are discouraging.
Leaving Jim’s is not the end for Runamuk, I know this and I’m confident that I will persevere, but I am no longer confident in leasing land. Farms are different from other businesses in that they invest their money and time into the land itself. Farmers give their heart and soul to a piece of land, to see it flourish and provide a bounty. It can take years of soil-building, cultivating, reseeding pastures, managing forests, and nurturing the land to see a return on investments. Beginning farmers need long-term land-security in order to make the kinds of investments needed to be able to generate a stable income from the land.
So what comes next?
As partners in business and in life, Paul and I have pooled resources. He happens to have a parcel of land on the Norridgewock side of Ward Hill that he bought from family several years ago. This property came with a older mobile home on-site that Paul gutted and he spent a great deal of time during his bachelorhood reinforcing it’s structure, replacing insulation and redoing electrical wiring (isn’t he handy!?).
We plan to use his property as a stepping-stone as we get finances in order and continue to grow the apiary. Half the apiary will remain at the Hyl-Tun Farm, which allows our production hives access to the superior forage the vast hay-fields of Starks offers, while the other half, along with the rest of the Runamuk operation and our household will move to Paul’s place.
It ain’t gonna be pretty, folks.
Nothing about this property screams “farm” or envokes an image of “conservation agriculture”. The trees and brambles have grown up over the hills and gullies, the soil is sandy and lacking structure and nutrients. The housing is not what one would picture for any type of farmstead and the neighbors are a little too close for comfort.
But it is a place where we can land the bees and the chickens, where there will be a roof over our heads and a woodstove to huddle beside during the cold winter months. Best of all─Paul’s place will allow us keep our living expenses low so that we can pay down debts, optimize credit scores, and save money for a deposit on our future forever-farmland.
How are we going to make it happen?
After my dealings with Farm Credit East and the FSA I realize now that a business loan is not an option for Runamuk. It’s going to be another 3-4 years before the Runamuk Apiary begins earning a positive income. Currently large investments made into bees and apiary equipment give us a negative balance on the farm’s income taxes. Our off-farm employment, along with the sales from eggs and beeswax products keep Runamuk afloat, but because of the nature of farming with bees and the time involved in building an apiary I have not been able to improve upon that balance that lenders look at when considering financing an operation.
However rough and rustic Paul’s place may be, it will allow us to live much more cheaply and we will be able to squirrel money away to put towards a down payment on Runamuk’s forever-farmland. Sometime in the next couple of years we’ll run a crowdfunded campaign to raise even more funds to add to our nest-egg for the down-payment and to help cover any fees associated with the sale of the property.
We’ll research the opportunities that various local banking institutions offer and get pre-approved for a personal loan, and then we’ll begin our search in earnest. All options from “lease-to-own” and “for-sale-by-owner” to properties listed with real estate agents will be considered. Paul and I intend to take our time searching for our ideal property.
Once the purchase is finalized, we’ll put a camper on the land and live there seasonally as we develop the property. Winters we will spend in Norridgewock living frugally so that we can continue to invest in our business.
In the meanwhile….
At the moment everything is focused on getting through this move, which will occur towards the end of September. Paul is trying to make the old mobile home livable for us─it had always been more of a learning project for him before, rather than something he intended to actually live in; now he needs to finish the wiring, hook up the plumbing, and install a kitchen sink before we can purchase appliances and begin moving in.
After the transition we will lay out a budget together and then spend the winter working on plans for the apiary. We’re both keen to model our methods after Kirk Webster’s treatment-free apiary, and to build up the Runamuk apiary quickly while still being able to produce at least some honey as we grow. How much we can expand the apiary next year will depend on how many of our current hives make it through the winter, so we’re maintaining careful diligence with the hives right now.
There will only be a small raised bed for gardening next year, so I’ve decided to participate in the CSA program offered by my friends at Sidehill Farm in Madison who also sell their produce at the local Madison Farmers’ Market. Lack of space won’t stop us from growing our own microgreens and sprouts however, and we fully intend to continue making our own bread and cooking as much of our own food as possible in order to keep processed foods out of our diet.
I was asked recently what it was I really wanted─for my farm, for my life─and my answer to the person that asked the question was one that has stuck with me: I want to be close to nature. More than anything else, I always want to be close to nature and to the Earth. I know that so long as I focus on that, so long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other, Runamuk will persevere and so will I.
Stay tuned folks, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!