May is a Blur

These last 6 weeks are a blur. May is always crazy-busy for farmers and homesteaders across the northern hemisphere. How can it be June already? Here at Runamuk Acres, yours truly has struggled to find a balance between the farm-kitchen and the outside work, overwhelmed with all of the task clamoring for my attention. This is the time of year to get crops in the ground for vegetable production. It is also the time for cover cropping, pasture management, soil improvement, rotational grazing, honeybee production, and improvements to infrastructure. Take a moment now, to find out what we’ve been working on here at this small farm in the western mountains region of Maine.

May Lambs at Runamuk

When I look back over it, these last 6 weeks really are a bit of a blur. I’m always gung-ho to get outside in the spring, following winter’s long incarceration. Within me, there’s this very pressing need to feel the breath of wind on my skin, to touch and be a part of that world outside my door. A need to be at-one with this little patch of Earth that I call home, surrounded by countless other lifeforms─all simply existing here. It is a wondrous and magical thing which has me spellbound, caught in the grip of something bigger and more powerful than myself.

And so, I have doggedly forged ahead with my seasonal work. My mission: to grow food for my family and community, while simultaneously promoting the health and well-being of the habitat I share with the wildlife around me.

Fencing

The main focus, of course, has been the gardens. Yet, before I could give myself over completely to working the soil, I first had to ensure that the sheep and pigs could be secure on the field. That process required time dedicated to making seasonal repairs and improvements to the fencing system that both contains and protects Runamuk’s 23 finnsheep, along with the 6 pigs we are raising for CSA members.

One of last year’s big accomplishments was the long row of T-posts that runs through the middle of Runamuk’s 10-acre backfield. My solar chargers had become weak over time, and no longer contained our wiley flock. About the time I was startled awake at 4am one Saturday morning by an unmistakable “baaaaaaa”, I’d had enough of their shenanigans. When you have to bolt out of bed to wrangle sheep in your pajamas at 4 in the morning, something has to change!

Deron set up an outlet at the edge of the field for me, and now we use a electric fence charger to power the long line of electric fence. I attach electric net fences to that, rotating the sheep around the field. It’s a huge peace of mind, knowing that the sheep are safely contained inside a secure fence. I can leave the farm to make deliveries, do a supply run, or go out for an evening without worry that they might be roving the neighborhood─or standing in the middle of nearby route 16.

It was quite a checklist of projects that had to be seen to before I could move the flock from their winter accommodations up by the farmhouse, out onto the field for the summer. Broken insulators had to be replaced. The wires that make up the electric fencelines had to be mended and/or tightened. The grounding system needed to be beefed-up, and the sheep-tractor needed repairs, too, after a gusty storm had sent it rolling across the field last fall, causing damage to the roof of the structure. It was the first week of May before everything was ready.

Pig Date

May Piglets
The pigs are loving the spent grain sent to us by the Kennebec Brewery!

Deron and I drove over to Maple Lane Farms in Charleston on Mother’s Day weekend to pick up 6 piglets. We put the back seats down in my trusty Subaru Forester, laid out a heavy rubber floor mat from Deron’s mini-van, and put those pigs right in the back of my car. Do I even need to say that we made the hour and a half ride home with the windows open???

Deron called it our “Pig Date”, lol. I have to laugh at the irony of it all. Nothing says “farmer” like a Pig Date─and nothing makes a girl feel sexier than that (insert facepalm here)!

Athletic Sheep

You’d be surprised by how athletic sheep can suddenly become on Moving Day. I was down to my last few bales of hay, though, and moving the flock out onto the field couldn’t wait any longer. Putting the lambs in the back of the Subaru, we took that out first. Then, BraeTek and I managed to coerce the girls out onto the field with only some minor shenanigans.

For the boys, however, I put out an APB (all points bulletin) on facebook seeking volunteers to assist us. 5 locals come to the farm that evening, and I am super grateful for the help. Even with extra bodies, and extra fences set up to “guide” the 5 rams in the direction of the field, the foolish boys had to take the scenic route to get there. At one point, they were nearly in the road, followed by a parade through the garden. Eventually we managed to capture them inside the fencing on the field, and all was well.

Re-Grouping

Once the pigs and sheep were all blissfully settled out on the pasture, I was finally free to turn my attention to the gardens. This year has largely been about tackling some of the bigger projects that have been on my list for the last 3 or 4 years. It’s been about re-grouping, taking a step back in order to take a step forward, shifting gears, and making it all work for me. This has been a season for accepting my farm for what it is─and letting go of what it will never be.

The gardens here at Runamuk, have all─quite literally─“run-a-muck”. To varying degree, the 2 vegetable gardens, 3 perennial gardens, along with my little orchard, have all gotten out of hand here. That’s what happens when you take on too much, too soon. I’m just one person trying to make this farm work. I’ve been spread too thin these last few years─and it shows.

May Sheep at Runamuk Acres
Big thanks to the 5 volunteers who came to help us move the rams! You know who you are!

I’m not too proud to admit that I have some serious farmer-envy when I drive by other local farms… I see all of their beds laid out perfectly with crops growing along so lush and green. With their employees out weeding or harvesting product to sell. I see their high-tunnels, heated greenhouses, and their sexy tractors (yes, I think your tractor’s sexy, lol). I see their farm truck with their slick branding on the doors─and I want to be them.

I’ve had to accept that I’m just never going to be like Elliot Coleman, Jean Martin Fortier, or Conor Crickmore. I’ll never be the next Curtis Stone, or Joel Salatin.

This is partly because I lack the funds. Runamuk has been bootstrapped along since it’s conception, and finances continue to be an issue today. To be honest, though─I believe the fact that I am a single-mom and solo-farmer plays a big part, too.

Those guys all have wives, partners in life─even employees─to help them achieve that level of production on their farms. I am trying to do this largely by myself, while raising my 15 year old son. As a mom, I have to maintain some semblance of family life and routine. Since we homeschool, I also have a responsibility to my son’s education. Ultimately, I am responsible for molding my son into the kind of man I would want to see in the world. Having met some of the men out there, I take that very seriously.

I’m never going to be the next Elliot Coleman. So what? I’m really okay with that. I’m still feeding 40 households, plus a select portion of my surrounding community. That’s nothing to thumb your nose at. My focus now, is to embrace my farm-journey for what it is, let go of what it is not, and make it work for me─and my son.

Spring Projects

With that in mind, I’ve forged ahead with my spring projects. With an eye toward improving the soil through a succession of cover-crops, I’ve taken half of Garden 2 out of production, cover cropping it with peas and oats. That will get mowed at some point later in the season, tilled in, and another cover-crop planted for the fall. Stay tuned for more on that later.

I tilled up the lawn around the 9 apple trees that make up my front orchard, re-sowing it with New Zealand Dwarf White Clover. Clover has an extensive root system that gives structure to the soil, adding nitrogen, while offering a flowering food source for bees and other beneficial insects. Growing not more than 12-inches, this dwarf clover will make a low-maintenance ground cover that reduces the amount of lawn we will be mowing here.

Retreating to the much smaller, Garden 1, Deron helped me re-claim planting beds there, so that I might have a defensible growing space. I’ve had my hands in the soil every day since, a flurry of planting, as I try to utilize every square foot of that garden. I am eager to get into the bigger garden, to re-claim some of that space, and put it to work growing even more food.

The Farmstand

May Farmstand
Locals love our fresh bread and baked goods!

Since I’ve given up on housemates, finances have been especially tight this season. The income generated by those room rentals has been sorely missed. BUT─trying to accommodate strangers in the midst of my family and farm has not. Really, it has been pretty wonderful for BraeTek and I to have the house to ourselves.

That freedom has led to the growth of our farmstand, which is gaining traction, with more and more folks stopping in for our fresh-baked breads, and other delicious baked goods. It’s tricky, though, for this solo-farmer to keep bread coming out of the kitchen, while simultaneously trying to plant half an acre of vegetables. Throughout the month of May, I’ve had to take a couple weeks off from the kitchen, offering only the frozen loaves I’ve had in reserve. Mostly the community seems to be watching, waiting for those first fresh veggies of the season. We’re all craving it.

The biggest news, though, is my book announcement.

Wait─whaaaaaaaat?

Book Announcement!

That’s right, my friends! Just because I haven’t been publishing blog-posts, doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I am a writer, remember? I actually have a couple of different manuscripts that I’ve been working on. Yay me!

It’s been 4 years this month, since I closed on my forever-farm, and I am super excited to say that I am finally writing my book! “How to Buy a Farm With No Money Through the Farm Service Agency”or “How to Bootstrap Your Way to Farm Ownership” (Okay, so the title needs work, lol─leave your suggestions in the comments!). It’s totally possible to make farm-ownership a reality, even if you have no money. It’s a long road, and not for the feint of heart─but it is possible. I truly believe that if I can do it, so can you. So can anyone─if they want it bad enough.

My goal is to have the book finished and ready to launch by the end of September. It will come out first as an ebook available through Amazon’s direct publishing service, followed by availability on Audible and more! Sign up below to receive notifications about the book-launch!

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Person to Person

For this farmer, May came and went in a blur. Now here we are mid-way through June, and I still have a lot of planting to do. Along with 3 “Big-Fish” projects that I am determined to make happen before the end of 2022: 1) set up a pond-pump for a back-up water system. 2) repurpose our existing tunnel into a winter compost-hut. And─most importantly─#3) erect a caterpillar tunnel for season extension in Garden 2.

You know what? So what if my farm doesn’t look like 4 Seasons Farm, or Neversink Farm? Hell, I could never be the next Elliot Coleman even if I wanted to be, because I’m too busy being me! Samantha Burns! Even at this small scale, Runamuk is providing fresh and nutritious locally produced food for it’s community─just like those other farms are doing. I’m damned proud of that. We will grow, you’ll see. I doubt, however, that Runamuk will ever be as big as some of these other big-name farms. And I’m okay with that.

It was Mother Teresa who once said, “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” Maybe I can make more of an impact by keeping my efforts condensed and focused on a smaller scale, than I otherwise might have done at the scale those other farms are running at. Perhaps, my work is meant to be conducted farmer to family, and person to person. I cannot say, but I am grateful for the opportunity to try.

Thank you for following along with the journey of this female-farmer! It is truly my privilege to be able to live this life, serve my family and community, and to protect wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more updates from the farm, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love to you and yours, my friends!

2018 Year-End Review

2018 top 9

It’s time for Runamuk’s 2018 Year-End Review! A quick review of my adventures in farming over the course of 2018 to give us some perspective before we launch into 2019, and all of the shiny new opportunities that await this farmer now that we finally have a permanent place to call home.
2018 best 9Sometimes we wait 10 years for that 1 that will change your life; 2018 was that year for me. Closing on the Hive House is the biggest accomplishment of my life, and while I still have goals I want to achieve, I’m doubtful that anything I do from here on out will ever compare to buying a farm and seeing that lifelong dream come true. Farm ownership has changed my life─it’s changed and it’s made all the difference for my family. Before we move on to 2019 and all the possibilities that it might have in store for us, I’d like to take a moment to review 2018 at Runamuk, and reflect on the lessons I learned as a beekeeper, as a farmer, and as a person.

The Runamuk Apiary

runamuk apiary_may 2018The winter months of 2018 were harsh for many beekeepers across Maine; Runamuk lost 20 out of 21 hives. It’s not the first time I’ve lost a significant portion of my apiary, but it’s always a disappointment and a big set-back to my operation. A visit from the state apiarist, Jennifer Lund, who examined the dead-outs, confirmed my suspicions. I did everything “right”, but the severe cold we experienced for prolonged stretches during January and February, combined with the bizarre the fluctuations in temperatures, had caused the bees to perish.

So I started again. I bought in 10 packages and 5 nucs this spring, and raised almost 40 of my own Queens, which were either installed into nucleus colonies, or replaced Queens in existing hives. I did much better this year with Queen-rearing; I’ve learned that timing is hugely important, as is providing adequate stores and nurse bees to your mating nucs. Right now I’m managing over 30 colonies, but the real question is: how many will survive the winter?

A drought during the main nectar flow this year, meant the bees were unable to make much in the way of surplus honey. The little honey that Runamuk produced was redistributed among the nucleus colonies I raised for 2019─I’m determined to NOT buy in bees this year. Customers were disappointed that I did not have honey for sale, and there was a significant impact to my finances as well.

Those severe weather conditions of the 2018 winter qualified me for the FSA’s ELAP program (Emergency Livestock Assistance Program). It was more paperwork and more waiting on the FSA, but in October I received $1200 from the government to reimburse Runamuk in-part for bees purchased to replace hives lost to the severe winter conditions. It didn’t completely cover the cost of the replacement bees, but it was definitely a help.

Farm & Garden

apiary apprenticeships
The laying flock working the garden.

Our late-season closing date had significant impact on the Runamuk farm and garden operations. Thankfully, I was able to plant potatoes and onions in a transition plot in Norridgewock, because aside from that I was not able to grow vegetables during 2018. By the time we arrived on the scene at the Hive House it was the beginning of July and preparations for moving the chicken flock took priority.

To house the flock of laying hens at our new #foreverfarm, I constructed twin chicken tractors. I rolled them onto the neglected garden plot, and set the birds to work on the weeds and the soil. Investment in electric-net fencing and solar chargers allowed me to rotate the flock around the future garden site, and opened the door for more rotational-grazing in seasons to come.

happy sheep at runamukLater in the fall Runamuk was gifted a pair of Romney sheep, which will work well in tandem with the chickens in my rotational-grazing schemes. These lovely ladies are so sweet and gentle; they’ve added a special dynamic to the Runamuk farm. Next fall I’ll have them bred with the intention of putting some meat in the freezer come 2020.

Following Halloween, I made one last push to get a crop of garlic in the ground at our new location. This involved chopping a swath down through my cover-crop, plugging in the 10-pounds of seed garlic I’d purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and then laying a good 6-inches of straw on top of the cloves. I’m looking forward to seeing those first bright green leaves poking up through the straw this spring.

Personally

2018 was a year of personal growth for me. Half the year I was strung out, tense and distraught as I plodded through the FSA’s extensive loan process, anxiously awaiting Closing Day while my life and my farming operation sat on hold. I distracted myself with friends, music, and by focusing on the things that I could do while I waited, which turned out to be serving the farmers’ market and working with the bees (yay bees!)

appalachian sheep dogsIn May I joined friends on-stage at the Farmer Talent Show to play my banjo in public for the first time ever (I’m a little shy, if you recall, and suffering from a bit of stage fright, so this was a big deal for me). The show was a fundraiser for the Maine Harvest Bucks program at the Madison Farmers’ Market, and turned out to be a wild success within our rural community.

It was late in the season by the time I finally met the Sellers at the FSA office in Skowhegan for Closing on the Hive House. On June 27, 2018, my whole life changed. I’d earned something for myself that was monumental, validating years of blind faith in a dream that more than one person has scoffed at along the way. As a result, I’ve become a little bolder, more confident in myself and my own abilities. I’ve found my “muchness” in the Hive House and in this scrappy parcel of land.

me on the farm
Loving life on my new farm in New Portland, Maine!

At the same time, learning to be alone for the first time in my life was challenging. I struggled with it initially, but then leaned into the discomfort. I allowed myself to grow and evolve, and I’m learning to appreciate the solitude. Being alone is a marvelous opportunity to get to know oneself better. A chance to shower oneself with love and attention. And so I have.

What’s more, I’ve decided to step down as manager of the Madison Farmers’ Market so that I can better devote myself to Runamuk, my kids, and to myself. The Hive House, Runamuk, and all that I want to do here─all that I want to be for my kids─is a lot to manage on my own. I can do it, but I’ve realized that I need to better prioritize how I use my time and energy, and I need to prioritize who and what I give myself to. My kids have to come first, Runamuk is next, then me; everyone else and everything else will just have to get in line.

Biggest Lessons Learned 2018

  1. NOT getting what you want, can sometimes be a blessing.
  2. Prioritize everything.
  3. Solitude = Self-Love and alignment with ones’ own soul.

2018 held some painful plot-twists: initially things had looked good for my purchase of the Swinging Bridge Farm, but when that door abruptly closed on me, I had to think fast if I were going to make farm-ownership a reality for Runamuk. What if the stars moved out of alignment and I missed my once-in-a-lifetime chance?

Now that we are settled at the Hive House, I am grateful to the Universe for saving me from myself lol; as much as I loved SBF and those beautiful, beautiful trees, that house and property needed a lot of work and money put into it, and it would likely have been too much for me to cope with on top of farming. The Hive House is in solid shape and is everything Runamuk needs, it’s everything my kids need, and I am grateful to be steward of this patch of Earth.

Level-Up

runamuk acresBuying the farm was life-changing for me; I leveled-up big time this year, and now I have the chance to grow Runamuk into the sort of conservation farm I’d always imagined. Now I can try the things I’ve always longed to: rotational-grazing, cultivating soil microbial life for better soil health, planting perennials for food, medicine, and nectar sources, and practicing a style of farming that combines modern agriculture and environmental conservation in the best way possible.

I’m eager for spring to come and for the chance to dig in here at our new #foreverfarm home. Like so many other farmers and gardeners, I’m pouring over the seed-catalogs and planning my 2019 season. I’m giddy as a schoolgirl at the thought of all the projects I have lined up. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’ll be building toward something that will be here for generations to come.

This bee-friendly demonstration farm may never change the world on the whole. Yet, if I can show even a small segment of the population that bees and bugs are good─that insects are crucial to the web of life and remind people that so much of what we know today is dependent on these tiny creatures and their relationship with flowering plants, and as such they are deserving our respect, our appreciation, and our protection─then I will have made some difference in the world. My life’s mission will be fulfilled and I will be content enough in that.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box; 2019 is going to be a great season! Follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes glimpses into day-to-day life on this #beefriendlyfarm.