What’s next for Runamuk?

paul-smith-runamuk-apiary

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?

runamuk apiaryAs 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.

runamuk apiary maineRemaining close to nature

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!

Even more bees!

new bees 2016

I got the call last week from the local beekeeper I’d ordered nucs with; they were ready. I was at Johnny’s at the time and could not contain myself─everyone around me knew my enthusiam and excitement. Yay bees! That moment of elation was quickly followed by a moment of panic. The loan I had applied for had not yet come through and I wasn’t sure how I would pay for the new bees.

Funding for Runamuk

I’ve been so busy here on the farm that I feel as though I’ve been running. Running trying to get this little farm off the ground, and in some ways I am gaining, while in other ways I am not. I began back in January working on my business plan, putting together various spreadsheets and production analyses. I submitted the proposal to Farm Credit East, who rejected it due to the fact that my name is still on my ex-husband’s mortgage and in their eyes I am liable for that payment until he either refinances or my name is removed from that debt. Undaunted I immediately turned around and submitted my business plan and financing proposal to the Farm Service Agency to apply for their microloan program.

There I ran into another hiccup. I needed a long-term lease for at least 3 years.

The problem there was that my landlords have decided to sell the farm. I was initially alarmed, afraid that all I’d started here─rebuilding my life, my business, and this farm─was for nothing. With my name still on another mortgage and Runamuk still in it’s infancy there’s no way I can qualify for a mortgage at this point. But the Murphy family are committed to honoring their late-brother’s life, and his love for this old farm; they’ve sought out the Maine Farmland Trust.

The Maine Farmland Trust is a non-profit organization which preserves farmland by securing agricultural easements that protects the land so that it will forever be available at its value as farmland rather than its potential development value. This  makes it possible for new farmers like me to purchase farms or farmlands that enable us to do what we do.

What’s more, the Trust will only take on the property if I am on board and have a plan in place to purchase the farm down the road─and of course I’m totally on board and I have my carefully crafted business plan ready to go to demonstrate how I will make it all happen.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be working with the folks at the Maine Farmland Trust!!!

The Murphys went above and beyond to provide me with a suitable lease-agreement for the interim; unfortunately the FSA turned down my loan request. They were able to overlook my ex-husband’s mortgage because our divorce agreement stipulates that he is responsible for that debt; however as a result of my divorce and the fact that I was without a farm for the first 6 months of last year, along with the fact that I lost all of my hives during the brutal 2014-2015 winter, I had a drop in production on the farm and my tax statement reflects that. No loan.

What’s next?

So what does all of this mean for Runamuk?

Well unfortunately no loan means I can’t invest in the electric-net fencing I need to move the chickens onto pasture, or to bring sheep to the farm. Yet.

first check from the pick up
First check from The Pick-Up.

But I have the bees, and the chickens are laying lots of eggs, I’m busy making lots of soap and great herbal salves, and I’m working to increase Runamuk’s distribution range. Recently I began marketing my products through The Pick-Up in Skowhegan, which has a broad reach and a great reputation as a supporter of local foods and products and I am thrilled to be working with them. Already orders are coming in.

I will continue to work on increasing product availability and distribution, and I will focus more on data-mining and recordkeeping, as this was one of my major failings in the loan process. Lesson learned.

A new way forward

The loan rejection is disappointing for sure, but ever the optimist I’m looking at the positives: a) no loan means less debt and no loan repayment, b) it was a valuable learning process, and c) I now have a well-polished business plan ready to hand over to the Maine Farmland Trust.

I sincerely believe that these things happen for a reason. Obviously that door was closed to me because it is not my path. I had originally thought that if this loan attempt were to fall through it would be the end of the road for me here. It’s a big place and the price tag that comes with it reflects that. But I can’t just walk away from it all without first exhausting all options. So I’ve found another way.

new business partnerI’m so used to going it alone, farming on my own, that I’ve repeatedly turned down the offer for help from my new apprentice. But this man has been nothing but supportive, working alongside me, working for me and this farm, and so I have decided to take Paul Smith officially as my business partner. (Insert celebratory applause here.)

Farming is hard work, it’s stressful and exhausting, and it can be a thankless job. However it is also rewarding, and meaningful, and I am happy to be able to share the journey with this man. And as his investment in the company, Paul has put up the funds to cover this year’s new stock of bees. Some girls want jewelry…some just want thousands upon thousands of stinging insects, lmao!

Sharing space

I’ve also decided that for the next couple of years it will be necessary to share the farmhouse with a housemate or two. It’s an option I’d avoided until now. I’m a grown woman with kids and a business to run, not a twenty-something individual looking for companionship and parties. I outgrew the shared-living concept ages ago; however─if renting one or two of the 5 bedrooms in this big old farmhouse helps me to pay the rent and hang onto the place until Runamuk is able to pay those bills, then that is what I must do.

My sister is planning to move in once her current lease expires in December. And in the meanwhile I have 2 rooms I am looking to rent. One of them is not heated, so it is only available until about October when the weather turns cold; I’m offering this room at $300/mo. The other is larger and available for a longer-term lease for $400/mo. Both have their own entrances through the garage, and housemates will of course have access to the main house. We’re about a 20 minutes drive from Farmington and the University of Maine campus there, and  20 minutes from Skowhegan. If you or someone you know is looking for a place in the area, feel free to let them know or to contact me. Because I have children and this is my place of business, I will be strict about references, but I’m willing to knock some off the rent in exchange for help around the farm.

new bees 2016And so Paul and I fetched the first round of new bees last week, and I will bring a second round this week, for a total of 10 new colonies. I am elated. Joyous. Ecstatic. And so grateful to all of those who have stood by me during these last few months while I worked dauntlessly on my business plan, fretted over the sale of this farm, and struggled to find my path. In moments of weakness I wonder sometimes if it really is determination that keeps me going, or if it is more likely that I am stubborn and foolhardy. Thankfully I am blessed to have many wonderful friends, kindly supporters, and a caring family who lift me up when I am down. This journey is just beginning and I know my struggles are a long way from over, but it is my friends who give me strength to continue on. You’ll never know how much that truly means to me.

Stay tuned folks, things are getting interesting!

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!