Back in the Saddle

After a long hiatus, I am ready to get back in the proverbial saddle. I am ready to come back to blogging─ready to share my farm’s story with the world once more. I took some time away to focus on the farm, but the writer in me will not be ignored. The words must flow, just as the waters of the mighty Kennebec River must flow southwards to the sea.

I am a Writer

Farmer Sam with her sheep.

“What good is a farm without land?” I was in a dark place 7 years ago, following my initial separation from my husband of 15 years. Uncertain about my future and the future of Runamuk, I was landless, homeless, apart from my children for the first time, and the callous words of an acquaintance sent me into a dark depression. I found myself questioning everything I was, and everything I had ever been.

It was a good friend who took me aside to correct the situation, and I’ll never forget those sincere words. She told me, “Yes, Samantha, you are a farmer.” This friend went on to say, that, other people may have more land and more money to be able to play at farming with–but my heart holds the truest spirit of farming. She believed that it is that spirit and dedication, passion and love that make a real farmer. She said, I have that spirit, and I am more farmer than many who claim the title.

Tears pricked my eyes, and I had to fight to maintain my composure. I felt as though the editor of the New York Times had just said to me: “Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus.” Thanks to that friend’s kind words of support, and thanks to so many others who supported my ambitions, I went on to pursue my dream of owning my own farm and making my living by working with nature to feed my family and community.

Note: To read that story in full, click this link: “Yes, Samantha, you are a farmer.”

Yet, just as much as I am a farmer─so, too, am I a writer. The truth is…I just do not feel whole when writing is not a consistent part of my life. I love being a farmer, but something inside me compels this outpouring of words to page. It will not be denied, ignored, or left behind.

Farm First

Runamuk currently serves 40 local households through it’s CSA program, maintains a farmstand, and collaborates with 2 local restaurants.

Since buying my forever-farm 3 years ago, I’ve largely put the farm first. Establishing Runamuk at this new location, building infrastraucture, gardens, and a clientèle, has been a monumental and all-consuming project. Add to that BraeTek’s return to homeschooling, and a new relationship with my Mr. Right, and you can see why I might need to put writing on the back-burner.

But it didn’t feel right. The urge to create and express myself literally is always there, sometimes fairly choking me with it’s desire to be expressed. Snippets of stories that want to be told come to me on the wind when I am working in the garden. Bits of inspiration hit while I am driving along my delivery routes. Conversations between characters play out in my head when I am mucking livestock sheds. Just as that desire to farm and feed people burns inside me, so too does the need to write.

I know in my heart, if I were to give up on writing─if I were to continue ignoring that side of myself for the rest of my life─when I am old and frail, lying there on my death bed, I would regret it. And I am just not willing to go to the Great Beyond with regrets. I am not willing to live the unlived life, or even a half-life. For, that is what life is for me─without writing─a half-life.

Committed to Writing

I am committed to writing, just as I am committed to farming, to my family─to breathing air! I vow to you here and now, to post─at the very least─an update from the farm on a weekly basis. To myself, I promise to spend time every day─writing. Whether that writing is done in my journal, on the blog, or working on some other literary project─I will write. For, I am a writer, and the words will not be denied.

I write about what I love and hold most dear─farming, self-sufficiency, feeding my family and community, family dynamics, connecting with nature, and environmental conservation. They say to write what you know…well, that’s what I know─because it’s who I am. I am a farmer─and a writer!

Thank you for following along with the journey of this female-farmer! It truly is 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, my friend!!

Runamuk’s 1st-Ever Open Farm Day!

open farm day

This past Sunday Runamuk participated in it’s 1st-ever Maine Open Farm Day. This was Maine’s 30th annual Open Farm Day, which gives the public the opportunity to meet their local farmers and support agricultural businesses across the state. Runamuk invited it’s local community to stop by the farm, offering tours, the chance to pet the sheep and meet the chickens, or to have pictures taken atop Walter, our antique tractor. It was a very rewarding day on the farm.

open farm day_2019

Quality vs Quantity

Honestly, I didn’t promote Runamuk’s participation in Open Farm Day very loudly; in fact, I just sort of whispered it. This season has been so hectic as Runamuk seeks to establish itself here, and I’ve been coping with some seasonal farm-overwhelm as I try to keep up with it all (more about that in an upcoming post!), so I just wasn’t able to give much energy to the event. Even still, I was happy with the handful of people who stopped by that morning: quality vs quantity.

open farm day_billiejo and easton
My neighbor, Billie Jo, and her grandson, Easton, at Runamuk on Open Farm Day.

open farm day_2019
The neighbors brought their grandson, Easton, to pet the lambs!

open farm day_2019_local family
The lambs loved a visit from Benjamin and his family!

Every Day is Open Farm Day at Runamuk

Later that evening I saw a few remarks on facebook from local folks who said they would have gone if they’d known, so I’d like to take this opportunity to say that every day is Open Farm Day at Runamuk. The public is always welcome to stop by for a tour, take a walk through the pollinator meadow, or find out what we have available for veggies and farm-products. We’re open every Saturday from 8 to 4, but I would happily coordinate tours any other day of the week, and of course, we accept drop-ins too.

Runamuk is a community farm─as in, we exist to serve our community. Yet, Runamuk is more than just another small farm; Runamuk Acres is an education center for nature and agriculture. We want to inspire people to value and protect the natural world. We also seek to inspire other farmers to use the forces of nature to their advantage and farm for climate action.

And so we invite the public in. Come see us!

The People’s Farm

I feel very strongly about sharing the farm with the people in this way. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the support of our community, both locally and online. What’s more, to buy Runamuk’s forever-farm I took advantage of government programs funded by tax-payer monies. This farm belongs to the people; I’m just fortunate enough to be it’s Steward.

If you’ve been following my story for a long time (thank you!), you likely already know what I have in mind. But for those who might be new here: imagine a series of trails winding through Runamuk’s 53 acres of fields and forest, beckoning the people to take a stroll. There will be several picnic tables for families or class field trips to use to eat their lunch outdoors. I’ll host workshops and fun events on-farm to promote education on a wide range of topics.

Luckily there is an existing trail on the property, so I can build on that, and even without picnic tables, Runamuk is a lovely setting for a picnic lunch. I’m stoked, that a couple of local schools have already inquired about field trips.

open farm day
Benjamin has fun with Walter, Runamuk’s ’51 Farmall tractor.

Next Year

There’s always next year, to get out and participate in Maine’s annual Open Farm Day. Runamuk will definitely sign up again next year, and the years following that, since I plan to be here doing this work on this scrappy piece of Earth for the rest of my life. With any luck, by this time next year things will be running more smoothly here, and I’ll be able to give the event more time and energy.

Thanks for following along! Be sure to subscribe by email to keep up with the latest from Runamuk Acres; OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the day to day workings of this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Cool, Wet Spring

runamuk apiary

A prolonged winter, combined with a cool, wet spring, made for a late start to the 2019 growing season, and even now temperatures remain rather on the cool side. These conditions have made it difficult for the planting of some temperature-sensitive crops. The apiary is particularly tricky to manage in such cool weather, but I am undeterred. Runamuk’s first growing season at it’s new forever-farm is underway! Yes, there have been some unexpected hiccups, but overall I am gaining ground and things are going well.

In the Apiary

The cooler temperatures we’ve experienced this spring have made it difficult to work in the apiary. Ideally, it should be 65 degrees or warmer when inspecting a hive. Cool outdoor temperatures can chill brood in the combs, which can cause larvae mortality. Death of the larvae directly translates into in a drop in the colony’s population, which can set a hive back significantly.

runamuk apiary
The apiary at Runamuk with violets all in bloom!

With snow on the ground right through April, I waited and waited for the weather to turn, checking the weather app on my phone daily and monitoring the thermometer on the side of the garage here on the farm. Unfortunately, it’s been cool all season. It was May, before we saw our first 60-something degree day, and then I leapt at the chance to get into the hives. I had to know what condition the surviving hives were in so that I could determine how this season was going to go.

frost advisory_Maine_cool wet spring
We had a frost advisory at the end of May!

It’s June now, but things haven’t really warmed up too much. I’ve managed to do what I need with the bees, though sometimes I’m forced to push the envelope with the temperature in order to get it done. I’m forever watching the weather forecast, waiting for the right opportunity to get into the hives. Sometimes I’ve had to resort to working on some 60-degree days, when it’s just a tad cool for bees.

Despite the challenges, the first of my overwintered nucs was retrieved this past Saturday by a beekeeping couple from Farmington. Later this week, Kyle DePietro from Tarbox Farm is coming to pick up the nucs he’d reserved back in March. I’m assembling nucs promised to other local beekeepers, and I’ve started a batch of Queens. Woot! Woot!

The dandelions have finally bloomed, the apple trees are blossoming, and there’s tree pollen in the air. The girls are bringing in copious amounts of nectar and turning it into honey; this stimulates the Queens to lay more eggs─up to 2,000 a day!─and the colonies are expanding to fill multiple boxes. I’ve even found a few swarm cells…it’s still a cool, wet spring, but bee-season is here at last!

The Gardens

I am absolutely in love with the gardens I’m creating here. When it comes to gardening─having a permanent location is such a beneficial thing. Knowing that I am going to be here for years to come allows me to invest in the soil, invest in the gardens with my time and energy, and invest in perennial plants that I’ll be here to nurture and care for over the years.

I might have gotten a little carried away at the Fedco Tree Sale this year, but having waited years for the opportunity to add certain perennials to my farm, I have no regrets whatsoever about it. I really want to make a big push for perennial food plants these first couple of years, and so this year I’m putting in 8 apple trees, 25 raspberry plants, 3 highbush blueberry plants, 10 elderberries, and a Shagbark hickory tree going in, as well as some perennial herbs like lovage, parsley and chives. For the pollinators: an allegheny serviceberry, a pagoda dogwood, lots of echinacea, coreopsis, bee-balm, mint, lavender, and whatever else I can make time for this year.

There are 3 perennial flower beds already in existence here, though they all need some TLC. The front perennial bed was overgrown and neglected, so I began first by cutting back overgrowth in the form of dead rose-canes, tree saplings that had taken root, and a shrubby pine at the front end that shaded that whole corner of the garden. Once I managed to clean up the garden, I planted my pagoda dogwood there. I have a number of my perennial flowers and herbs started from seed to plant there, too. Running parallel to my small orchard, and nearer to the roadside, this perennial bed is going to be a beautiful feature in the farm’s roadside landscape.

Regarding the farm’s large vegetable garden─it does not good to plant if the chickens are going to scratch it up, the dog is going to tromp through your beds, or the deer help themselves to your crops. So when my friend, Roberta Libby of Madison, offered Runamuk the gift of several rolls of previously used deer-fencing, I couldn’t say anything except thank you. With  6-foot T-posts, zip-ties, and an extra pair of hands, I was able to get a big fence around the garden, and that is a huge asset when you live in the wilds of Western Maine. I even have a fabulous garden gate!

garden gate at Runamuk
New-to-me deer-fencing and garden gate!

Partly because the bees always come first, and partly because I’m still establishing permanent beds in the new garden, I’m a little behind with planting of some crops. However, with the kind of cool, slow Spring we’ve had, that’s not such a horrible thing. This week I’m making a push to prep the newer half of the garden, which more than doubles the size of the previously existing garden.

As soon as the snow had melted from that area I had laid heavy tarps on the soil to keep the grass from growing up before I could break ground on this new section of the garden. All spring while I’ve prioritized other projects those tarps have been smothering the vegetation beneath, creating a warm bed that is attractive to worms and other soil life. When I finally pulled back the first tarp I could see worm castings covering the soil surface and the grasses and weeds were dead and dried, ready to be incorporated into the soil. The soil itself was fairly soft from so much worm-activity, and I felt guilty just walking upon it.

The soil in the previously existing section of the garden is absolutely beautiful. It is dark and fluffy. You can tell it’s been used and taken care of for decades. Who knows how long that plot has served as a homestead garden for this old farm property? But the soil on the rest of the property is not great. It’s rather acidic and─judging by the type of vegetation growing and the sparseness of it─I suspect it is significantly lacking in nutrients. That can be cured over time with amendments and care, though.

On the up-side, the soil here is just slightly sandy, which makes for good drainage, and contains practically no rocks whatsoever! When I smother a patch, as I’ve done this spring, it’s a dream to take the broadfork to it and create new beds for planting. No tilling necessary! It’s a really beautiful thing.

I am Grateful

farm stand roadsign runamuk acres
Runamuk’s roadside farm stand signage on Rt 16!

I have some livestock-related updates I’d like to share with you as well, but as I have a lot to say about rotational grazing and chicken tractors and such, I’m going to save that for another post. For now, just know that I’m working everyday to accomplish the goals I’ve set for Runamuk. These first few years are largely about establishing the farm at this site, and cultivating a larger customer-base. It’s a huge challenge (I’m perpetually sore these days!), and─if I’m being honest─it’s just a little overwhelming at times.

I’ve got my giant chalkboard, though, and my notebook of to-do lists to keep me on track. Ups, downs, rain or shine, aches and pains─I’ll take it all as part of my farm-journey, and I am grateful for it. With such a beautiful piece of Earth to call my own, how could I not be grateful every minute of every day for the life I’ve been granted here? How could I be anything but grateful that I can spend my days doing work that I love to do─work that has real purpose and meaning to it? This is what I was put here to do, and I will do it wholeheartedly.

Stay tuned for a livestock-related update coming soon! Check back for the next article in our Soil-Series, and don’t forget about our up-coming giveaway of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”. Subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box, OR follow us on Instagram at @RunamukAcres for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Finally a Forever-Farm

It’s officially official; at long last Runamuk has a forever-farm of it’s very own! On Wednesday, June 27th, after nearly 10 years working toward this goal─I finally became a land-owner.

Big Thanks to the Dream Team!

fsa farm closing day
From left to right: Nathan Persinger, Penobscot County USDA Farm Loan Officer, Janice Ramirez, Somerset County Farm Loan Officer, myself holding the keys to the farm, my NextHome realtor Leah J. Watkins, and Andrew Francis, FSA Program Director for Somerset County.

Closing was held at the USDA Service Center in Skowhegan, Maine, and my whole team turned out for the occasion. I’ve dubbed them the “Dream Team” because without these people none of this would have been possible. Nathan Persinger, Penobscot County USDA Farm Loan Officer and my FSA rep, Janice Ramirez, the Somerset County Farm Loan Officer, my realtor Leah Watkins, and Andrew Francis, the FSA Program Director for the Somerset County FSA. They each believed in me enough to help make my dream of farm-ownership come true, and they will always have my unending gratitude.

Settling In

With the ink drying on the paperwork, the #GreatFarmMove #FinalChapter is well underway. I’ve spent the last 6 days moving my farm and family from Norridgewock to New Portland: Saturday and Sunday were the hardest, with the larger furniture, dressers, beds and bookcases, coming over in the Hilton’s horse trailer and a borrowed truck (thank you Ken and Kamala Hahn!). Saturday night a few of my closest friends came to help move the bigger items into the house and joined me in the celebration of this victory.

My body is bruised and sore all over, but I’m on the other side now─there’s not so much left to move now, and we’re beginning to settle in here at the Hive House. The house is lovely and fair─filled with character and charm. There are plenty of spaces for a whole spectrum of workshops, along with a 10 acre field out back and mountain views in 2 directions. I never would have dared hope I would end up with a house and property as nice as this─it’s amazing and I feel so blessed to be here.

i bought a farm
The Hive House.

Admittedly, the Hive House was not my first choice; when the Swinging Bridge Farm turned out to be a dead-end, I had to think fast and make some compromises. To some degree it feels a little like we’ve each come into this relationship a little reluctantly. This house had apparently been part of the same family for several generations and has a legacy within the community here in New Portland. Change can be hard, and for something as iconic as a house such as this one, I imagine it’s strange and uncomfortable and difficult to see it changing hands. But now that we’ve been brought together─the Hive House and I─I feel like we’re falling in love slowly, hesitantly, like a shy bride (the Hive House) and her recalcitrant groom (yours truly) unexpectedly captivated by each other.

Savor the Moment

It’s such a monumental accomplishment that I have allowed myself to take the time to really savor the moment─a honeymoon phase, if you will. I’ve been a tumult of emotion: alternating between relief, pride, love, excitement, fear, wonder and incredulity.

Relief: I’m immensely relieved that it’s finally over. Years of working toward this goal and here I am finally owner of my own home, where I can raise my kids and grow my farm and never have to face having to leave it behind ever again. If I have my way I’ll grow old and grey, die right here in this house and my ashes will fertilize the same soil that I farmed.

conservation at the hive house
Lots of birdhouses around the field at the Hive House!

Pride: I am so proud of me! I did it─I bought a farm! And though I’ve had some help along the way to grease the wheels, this was MY accomplishment. It was me who decided to generate an income from farming, and it was me who worked and strategized how I could some day buy my own place to ensure my own security.

Year after year I have doggedly pursued this goal, and even after my divorce when failure seemed imminent, I kept at it. I have been told that it would never amount to anything, that the chickens are of no use, that the bees are too risky a venture, and that you can’t make money farming. Maybe I’ll never be well-off, but I was able to buy this beautiful property as a farmer based on the income I’ve made from the farming of bees and chickens. I did that, and I’m proud of that.

Love: It’s at the root of everything I am and everything I do. Love for my kids, love for nature, and love for my fellow mankind drives me to protect those things. I revel in that love and it consumes me.

Gratitude: To be here, to have this beautiful house and property for my own, I am just so immensely grateful. I am filled with gratitude for every person who ever said a kind word, grateful to those who believed in me and encouraged me, and humbled that the Universe saw fit to bring me here to this place.

Excitement: Now that I finally have a forever-farm I’m excited to be able to get down to the business of farming. I can put into action my plan for a pollinator conservation farm, where I can share the beauty and wonder of the relationship that flowering plants have with their animal pollinators.

Fear: I’ve had people question my ability─asking whether or not I can handle it and if I know what I’m getting myself into. Now that I’m here and looking around, I admit that it’s a little overwhelming to think that I am responsible for all of this. What if those nay-sayers are right and after all this I wind up blowing it in the end???

Wonder & Incredulity: It’s a marvel that I ended up here after the long journey I’ve been on; there are moments when I can scarcely believe it’s really real. The field, the view, the gardens and the pond, the house and all of the out-buildings─it’s like a dream: a wonderfully wonderful dream that I never want to wake up from.

Switching Gears

I still have a few things to bring over from Norridgewock, but today I’m switching gears to begin construction of 2 chicken tractors to house the laying flock on the pasture out back. Making a video-tour of the farm is on the list of things to do, but until the moving is completely finished that is not a priority. Also, stay tuned for news of Runamuk’s Farm-Warming Party scheduled for later this summer!

Thanks for following along! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest updates from Runamuk directly to your in-box! Follow @runamukacres on Instragram for more frequent updates from our farm!

Making the most of it as a land-less farmer

spring hives 2017

One of the great things about beekeeping is that I can do it from anywhere. Everyone wants beehives on their property, especially if someone else is going to do the work and all the land-owner has to do is sit back and enjoy the bees. I’ve had so many offers for apiary locations that I’ve lost count. Even if I were living in an apartment I could still keep bees, make soap and sell honey. Being a land-less farmer has no bearing on my bee-operation and that fact has allowed Runamuk to persevere these last 7 years.

spring hives 2017Saturday was Madison’s first market day of the 2017 season; Runamuk and I were there with an assortment of handmade beeswax soaps and wildcrafted herbal salves. Jars of dark, dark honey were proudly displayed. This was the first time in 2 years I’ve had honey for sale─and the result of hive losses over the course of the winter.

No, it’s not the apiary that suffers as a result of being a land-less farmer….

At the urging of some of my farming friends, I’ve decided to keep Sundays for myself─a day off to rest and recharge is very important in preventing burn-out. I drove westward to Farmington to spend the afternoon with my sister, taking the scenic route through Starks and Industry on my way over and coming back through New Sharon along the Sandy River. It was gray skies and persistent rain, but it was beautiful to see the landscape as the trees are just beginning to unfurl their leaves. It’s my absolute favorite time of year─as a blushing red and green spreads across the forested hills and mountains where before were only bare brown branches reaching up from the craggy landscape. Broad pastures of farmlands stretch out along the Sandy River were so vibrantly green under the dismal sky that is was impossible to view the day as anything less than simply beautiful.

Despite the glory of spring heartening my soul, as I drove along those winding roads admiring the gnarly old trees along the roadside, the fields and the mountains─breathing in the blossoming new growing season─I had to acknowledge that persistent ache within me. The ache which is always present─always longing for a farm of my own, a home, a place to dig in and finally begin the lifelong process of putting down roots. A pain that is─at times─little more than a dull ache, while other days that pain is so acute that every fibre of my being is in agony. On those days my gut is twisted up inside me and if it weren’t for my heart being squeezed up inside my throat I would surely vomit with the pain of longing for my forever farm.

Again and again I reach for that tantalizing dream: a forest of mature-growth and a broad sweeping meadow tucked away from the world high on a hilltop or mountainside, with rock walls outlining the pastures and bisecting the forests a testament to the land’s long farming legacy. The dwelling itself is less important than the parameters for the landscape, but I usually imagine the classic New England farmhouse, dating back at least to the 1800s OR the more rustic log cabin with a stone hearth and a loft. Outbuildings are important to my operation─space to house my hive equipment, space to work on said equipment, and housing for my flock of chickens and the few other critters I would like to co-habitate with. I can do without electricity, but I do require water and a kitchen that will pass the state’s safety inspection for Home Processing. Those are the bare necessities for me and for Runamuk. Additional perks would include plenty of space in the house, a guest cottage or apartment, an established orchard, a stream or farm-pond and a breath-taking view of Maine’s western mountains.

That’s how I intend my story to play out.

Yet again and again I am thwarted. Tripped up on the obstacles in a female farmers’ path─or my timing is off and I’m reaching too soon or too late. In any regard, I am stuck in this limbo of being a land-less farmer. Leasing the only space I can afford on a beginning farmers’ income.

I’ve tried, but it’s next to impossible to find a rental or a lease on land that also offers housing for myself and my children. I’ve had offers, but so far nothing has been right for me, my family, or for Runamuk. I even approached the FSA─again. Now with another year under my belt and Runamuk’s income grown from $2500 in 2015 to $6044 in 2016, proving my business is growing. But it’s not enough yet to consider investment in a property feasible at this time.

It’s not the end of the world. I’m making the most of my situation as life has taught me to do. A new season is underway rife with possibilities and I will seize the opportunities that come my way and make the most of it. On those days when the pain is too great to bear, when those feelings will not be contained or restrained, I practice active gratitude and take life hour by hour, minute by minute if necessary, hanging on to what I have accomplished as a farmer as though for dear life. For even as a land-less farmer I know that my farm is growing and I have had a positive impact on my community through my work. That thought brings me comfort and the strength to keep on down this rocky path.

And if I need more reassurance, I can just sit and watch these girls coming and going and soon I am filled with renewed fervor and dedication! I may be a land-less farmer, but I’m making the most of it.

Stay tuned! Another season is upon us; check back often to see what this farmer is up to!