October Nor’easter

An unusual October Nor’easter tore through New England last week, breaking records and causing power outages for over a million households. Here at Runamuk, the fierce winds sent the sheep-tractor flying to land toppled upside-down a good 10 yards down the field. I don’t know how long my poor sheep were exposed to the elements, but they were a soggy, woolly mess when I found them Thursday morning. It seems Old Man Winter has awakened from his long sleep, and is making mischief once more.

soggy sheep_october noreaster
Soggy sheep!

Now that I’ve been through a full year of seasons on this property, I have a better understanding of the conditions we’re facing. I can see opportunities for improvements to the livestock accommodations that would make the winter easier on both the animals and their farmer.  I’ve been working doggedly through my list of winter preparations, hoping to beat the first snows. Some of the most important projects are things like:

  • Semi-permanent winter fencing for livestock.
  • Winterizing hives and providing some kind of wind-break.
  • Modifications to the Winter Coop
  • Modifications to the Winter Sheep-Shed
  • De-worming the sheep
  • Move the flock back to the Winter Coop
  • Equipment clean-up
  • Garlic planting

Winter Coop Modifications

Modifications to the Winter Coop were high on my list of priorities; the roof absolutely needed to be tightened up. Last winter the wind was able to get under a large section of the tin roofing so that it billowed frighteningly in the weather. There was also a leak where the flashing had come away from the building that allowed water to drip onto the nesting boxes below.

Note: Heights are a challenge for this farmer; big thanks to my friend Jeremy for climbing up on the roof of the coop to make those repairs for me!

A dividing wall was added─turning one coop into two, allowing me to house chickens of different ages. I added a pop-hole to the coop and made some alterations to the door to prevent snow and ice build up. There was a general tightening of drafty gaps with spray-foam insulation. Then I MacGuyvered a flap at either end of the coop using a couple pieces of mill-felt so that I can increase or decrease ventilation depending upon the temperature outside. Plastic went back on the outside walls this week and now the only thing left to do is add more roosts and nesting boxes.

broody hen
Sadly, there was one casualty to the October Nor’easter. Some predator took advantage of the storm to completely devour both hen and eggs.

The Runamuk laying flock consists of some 80 or so birds… I don’t actually know how many I have right now lol; I haven’t stopped long enough to count them. Regardless, moving them from field to coop or coop to field is a big job and one that requires extra hands. It took a couple of nights, but all of the birds I intend to overwinter were moved off the field and into the Winter Coop. Those who didn’t make the cut are slowly being culled: non-producing hens and all but one rooster. No free-loaders at Runamuk.

I’m finally beginning to get some eggs again and I’m hoping to be back to full-production soon. I’m not sure, though, how the cold and dark of winter is going to affect production with these heritage-breed hens compared to the hybrid-commercial layers I had last year. Those Golden Comets really cranked out the eggs all winter… To encourage laying, I’ve set a light on a timer in the coop to come on in the morning at about 4am, but I allow them to go to bed with the sun in the evening. I know they’re capable of laying through the winter, but I don’t want to push them too hard either.

Sheep-Shelters

The sheep are still being rotated around the property, and probably will remain on pasture til sometime in November. Since Lilian’s Temper Tantrum, the sheep with their shenanigans have continued to make life especially “interesting” here at Runamuk. Not once, but twice! I found sheep inside my fenced garden. Their shenanigans have only increased in frequency as we’ve gotten closer and closer to breeding season…but that story is blog-post in itself lol.

I can’t blame the sheep though; in almost every instance it iss farmer error that allows the opportunistic sheep to take advantage. I know a lot about raising bees and chickens, but I’m still new to sheep.

sheep-shed modifications
Re-building the sheep-shed to make it stronger!

Aside from the sheep-shenanigans, it was important this year to have not one but two separate sheep-accomodations. One for just the ladies, and another for the guys. For the ewes I opted to use the Sheep-Shed I constructed last year, but with some modifications. I took off the plastic and removed the hoops, seeking to make a stronger structure that requires less maintenance from the farmer during storms. I also re-positioned the shed to make it more centrally located in hopes I’ll be able to provide the sheep with a least a small yard in the lee of the garage. It will henceforth be referred to as: the “Ewe Shed”, where my ewes and their lambs will live during the winter.

The guys are going to overwinter in the Sheep-Tractor, which will sit out back─just beyond the apiary.

Fencing for everyone is a high priority, and currently still on my to-do list. I actually have all the fencing I need to do the job, but I’m a little short on T-posts and finances are tight, so I’ve been picking them up 2 and 4 at a time when I visit Tractor Supply. The Almanac is forecasting the first signs of snow for mid-November, so there’s still time to get this done─provided I get all the T-posts in the ground before it freezes…

Equipment Clean-Up

Making sure the livestock was squared away for winter has been my first priority, but ensuring that all of my equipment is cleaned up and put away was high on my list too. I’ve spent a lot of money on tools and irrigation in the last couple of years, and having maxed my credit to the hilt to get up and running here, I know I won’t be able to make those kinds of investments again any time soon. I need to take good care of the equipment I have so it lasts as long as possible.

With that in mind, I spent last Sunday pulling up the tomato patch to get at the drip-tape I’d laid there, and worked my way back from the garden removing irrigation and hoses from the field. I drove the car right out to the garden and loaded the equipment into the back to haul it to the garage. Each hose was fed over the top of the car and then coiled on the other side. The increased elevation ensures that any water still in the hose drains out the other side as I pull it over and coil it up. Each hose neatly with a piece of twine in one or two spots, just the way my farm-mentor showed me years ago.

Gaining Ground

lucy's eyeball
Lucy is the sweetest little lamb!

Incidentally, I had the opportunity recently to show off my place to that same farm-mentor, Linda Whitmore-Smithers, from Medicine Hill in Starks. She came for honey and I seized the chance to pick her brain about pasture management, critter-welfare and product marketing, etc. It was rewarding to be able to show this powerhouse-woman, whom I admire and respect so much, how far I’ve come along my own farming-journey.

“I’m following you!” Linda told me.

Thank you, Linda. It means a lot to know that there’s love and support out there. Indeed, some days it’s the only thing that keeps me going. Some days it feels like I’m working, working, working, and not really gaining. Some days the farm and the finances and being mom─is so overwhelming that I can’t help but wonder what the *#@$ I’m really doing here. Am I really making a difference in the world? Or am I just banging my own head off a wall?

Those are the days I just put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. I pick one task from the chalkboard and just do that one job to completion. When I feel overwhelmed I return to my list to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing. If I’m having a panic attack, I’ll take a yellow highlighter and highlight the most important tasks on the list and then I’ll select my next project from those I’ve highlighted. In this way, one task, one priority at a time, I have managed to accomplish quite a lot. I am gaining on that massive list of winter preparations. And I am gaining in income from this farm. Slowly and steadily, with dogged determination I am gaining ground here.

Old Man Winter is Awake!

I think this next month will continue to be difficult both in work-load and finances, but once ski-season hits, my farmstaybnb will be hopping─and that will give Runamuk a really great start to 2020. I think, that will have a snowball effect (no pun intended) for Runamuk─in a very positive way. Then all I’ll have to worry about is moving snow and serving up those delicious farm-fresh breakfasts for the next few months haha. Stay tuned, folks! Old Man Winter is awake and up to mischief again!

Thank you 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! Or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a daily glimpse into life on this Maine conservation farm!

Garden Cover-Cropping at Runamuk

garden cover cropping

Last week was all about cover-cropping the garden here at Runamuk. The chickens had completed their work and I had my new broadfork, along with some seed to put down; there’s something particularly intimate and romantic about working soil, so I was especially jacked up for the project.

garden cover cropAside from the continued focus on the Runamuk apiary, getting the chickens established and prepping the garden for next year are my main goals this first season at the Hive House. Above all else, I’m concerned with the long-term agroecology of my new farm. Because we are all connected on this planet, and because healthy soils are fundamental to the overall profitability and sustainability of my farm, I’ve made it my priority to start with the soil and work my way up.

A Word About “Agroecology”

Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agriculture systems.

The agroecologist views any farming system primarily with an ecologist’s eye; that is, it is not firstly economic (created for commodity and profit), nor industrial (modeled after a factory). Agroecologists do not unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture, but instead they assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with the natural, social and human assets.

This method of agriculture requires a deeper understanding of the complex long-term interactions among resources, people and the environment. Since a love for nature and my fellow man is at the heart of Runamuk, this is how I choose to run my farm.

Prepping the Soil for a Cover-Crop

While there is indeed an existing garden─approximately 25 feet by 80─it was only growing weeds when we arrived at the end of June. I put the chickens on the plot to let them do the work for me, and in 5 short weeks they managed to eliminate the weeds entirely, exposing bare ground for cultivation. They really did an amazing job, and─as an added benefit, the patch got fertilized.

garden when we arrived
This is what the garden looked like when we first arrived at our new #foreverfarm.
chickens working the garden
Here are the chickens at work on the garden.
chicken prepped garden
Once the ground was exposed I moved the chickens over and the soil could be prepped for cover-cropping.

Up til this point I’d only shuffled the fencing along; moving the chicken tractors and the fencing to an entirely new spot while still keeping the birds inside was a little challenging, but I got it all in the end─without any shenanigans, I might add. I’ve put them on a section of earth just next door to the original plot, which I’ve dubbed “The Garden Adjacent”, with the intention of expanding the garden to double the size.

Once I had the chickens off the garden, I eagerly took up my new broadfork and set to work.

broadforkI’ve always loved digging in the dirt. Love love LOVE it! The manual labor, the smell of the earth, the glimpse of microbial life beneath the soil-surface. And I’ve always been particularly partial to my spading fork. The broadfork is simply a larger version─with TWO handles─and easier on my back and body to use. Even still, it took a bit to really get the hang of using the broadfork, and to develop a rhythm with it.

Now─I’m in pretty decent shape for my (nearly) 38 years, but the broadfork offers a really great full-body workout and it turns out that I just couldn’t fork that garden continuously for the 10 hours it took me to complete the job. On Sunday I did 4 hours, then I had to take time off from Johnny’s to get the forking done before the rain that was forecasted for Wednesday. I left the office early on Monday, forked the garden til it was too dark to see, and then was back at it come sun-up Tuesday morning and went to work late that day. Thankfully this is a slow time of year in the Call Center, and my supervisor and colleagues there can allow me some flexibility.

Peas-and-Oats

johnny's peas and oats mix
The peas-and-oats cover-crop mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Once the cultivation with the broadfork was complete, I happily I brought out the seed I’d bought to cover the garden with. I went with Johnny’s peas-and-oats mix because it’s a super easy to manage cover-crop. The peas─like any legume─help to fix nitrogen in the soil, and the oats serve as a nurse crop, sheltering the seed during germination and then offering crop support for the pea plants. Both are annuals and will be killed this fall by the first hard frost we get, and if I leave the plant residue on the plot it will provide a great mulch layer for my new garden.

I followed Johnny’s recommended sowing rate of 5lbs/1000sq.ft. for the peas-and-oats and bought (2) 5-pound sacks to do that 2,000sq.ft section of earth, along with a package of inoculant.

Question: What is inoculant? and do you really need it?

garden combination incoluant
Garden Combination Inoculant─good for ALL legume-family crops.

This is something we are frequently asked in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. What I tell folks is that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t inoculate your legumes; you’ll still get a crop of peas or beans, or whatever it is. Inoculant is simply a packet full of microorganisms that are specific to legume-family plants, which aid in the legume’s nitrogen-fixing abilities. Personally however, I’ve always felt that anything I could do to help the little guys in the soil do their work of facilitating the availability of nutrients and water for my plants is worth the extra $5 and an extra step. But that’s just me; you’ll have to make that call for yourself.

To apply the inoculant I simply took a pail, dumped the first 5-pound sack of seed into it and added half the contents from the package of inoculant. I stirred the seed around with my hand (it’s not harmful in the least), seeking to ensure that all of the seed was evenly coated with the dark powdery inoculant.

Seeding the Garden for a Cover-Crop

It just happened to take 16 passes up and down the garden with the broadfork to complete this first half of our new garden, so it was easy to plan how I would walk down through the plot with the seed and hopefully ration it so that I had enough to do the entire space. I knew Johnny’s said I’d bought enough to do the job, but I also know from experience that when sowing by hand it’s easy to sow too heavy, and then you run out of seed before you cover the whole plot.

And even with my experience and careful planning, I was still too heavy-handed with the first half of the peas-and-oats mix. I found myself rifling through my seed-stash looking for something I could mix with the second half to stretch it out so that I could get the rest of the garden cover-cropped. Lucky for me I work at a seed-company and have access to “up-for-grabs” seeds; my “seed-stash” is sick…no, seriously─I have a problem, lol.

dwarf essex rape via johnnys selected seeds
Dwarf Essex Rape cover-crop; photo courtesy Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

I found a 10-pound sack of Dwarf Essex Rape seed; score! Rape is a member of the brassica-family and somewhat cold-tolerant, which is really ideal because sometimes we can have several more weeks of growing season after that initial killing frost, so this plant will linger into the fall, but still won’t survive our Maine winter so I won’t have to worry about tilling anything under next spring. I mixed some of this with my remaining peas-and-oats, added the rest of the inoculant, and then managed to finish seeding the garden.

Why Not Just Till it Under?

One of Runamuk’s Instagram followers has asked why I’ve done all this work by hand rather than simply taking a rototiller and tilling the plot under? Perhaps you were wondering too?

Certainly that would have been a quicker alternative and I wouldn’t have been so sore afterwards, lol. However, as an agroecologist I’m concerned for the organisms living in the soil and the impact that tilling would have on them. Tilling destroys their homes and populations. I want to encourage their numbers, help them thrive and aid them in their work so they will in turn aid me in my work: building a farm that not only supports it’s farmer, but which also works in tandem with nature, even helping nature.

That being said, I’m not necessarily opposed to tilling; it has it’s place. If I were facing heavily compacted clay soil I would have brought in a tiller, but as it is, the soil here is a nice sandy loam and this spot has been cultivated for years so I didn’t feel the plot really warranted tilling. The soil was workable with the broadfork, and I am strong and capable. I enjoy the work, and I take pride in knowing I’m doing my best to work with the natural forces in play all around me. So I did it by hand and I feel really good about that.

So Satisfying

broadforking at sunset long shadowBy the time I was on my second cup of coffee Wednesday morning, it was drizzling outside and my cover-crop was being watered in. The whole project was so immensely satisfying: clearing the garden with just the chickens, investing in the broadfork, using it to work the soil, and laying down that precious cover-crop seed─the whole experience was really very intrinsically rewarding to me. And that’s why I’m a farmer: because its fulfilling, because I enjoy it, and because I feel called to do this work and live this life. Thanks for following along!

What are your thoughts on cover-cropping? Have you ever tried it? Or, how do you feel about the notion of agroecology??? Leave a comment below to share with the readership so we can all learn together!

Farmer Talent Show a Success

fts sonia and wren

What a great time we had at the Farmer Talent Show Sunday night! It was a hugely successful event, and thanks to those who participated and came out to see the show, we were able to raise the funds needed to keep the Maine Harvest Bucks program going at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

farmer talent show signageIf you’re a regular reader of the Runamuk blog, you might recall the post from a couple months ago announcing the Farmer Talent Show as a means for raising funds to support the Maine Harvest Bucks (MHB) program at the Madison Farmers’ Market. MHB increases access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables for SNAP/EBT shoppers at local farmers’ markets and is made possible by government funding and various grants procured by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. However there was a gap in the funding this year that meant farmers’ markets across the state either had to temporarily suspend the program, or step up to cover the funding shortfall themselves.

At the Madison Farmers’ Market we were adamant that the community we serve, located in Somerset County─an economically depressed region of central Maine─should continue to have access to the benefits the MHB program offers, and so we devised a fundraising strategy that included reaching out to local businesses, as well as hosting this Farmer Talent Show.

I really can’t take much credit for the event that happened last night. The Open Mics at the Madison and East Madison Granges were a concept breathed to life by my friend Sonia Acevedo from Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison. Sonia is a dedicated member of the East Madison Grange and last fall she initiated the monthly Open Mic events, which have since been taking place on the last Sunday of the month.

When the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets notified us of the funding gap for the Maine Harvest Bucks program that our market participates in, Sonia proposed the idea of using the regularly scheduled Open Mic as a Farmer Talent Show to help raise funds for that program. I fell in love with the idea and ran with it, coming up with the singing goat graphic to promote the event, and with the help of some of the other vendors at the Madison Farmers’ Market, Sonia and I actively promoted the event and hoped for a good turn-out.

tomato tattoos
Epic tomato temporary tattoos donated by Backyard Farms!

There were refreshments in the form of cookies, brownies, chips and salsa, and even fiddlehead cake! Given that this was a farm-themed event, it was totally appropriate to have a baby goat on site, and my cousin Josh Richards, who owns and operates “Leaping Lizards” a rescue center for exotic lizards, brought a few specimens to show off to the crowd. We even had “I Love Farmers’ Markets” and epic tomato temporary tattoos to offer in exchange for donations.

Not only did we have a good turn-out, but we managed to fill the meeting room at the East Madison Grange and we had a long list of performers in a wide range of ages and skill levels that made for a really great show. There were guitar-players, a trumpet-player, an accordion and a dulcimer, a fiddle and banjos, even a story-teller.

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ellen and dog special guest judges
Our special guest judges were Ellen and Dog!

 

It was especially fitting that our special guest judges were Ellen and Dog, 2 of our market’s most devout patrons. They did a great job awarding recognition to the various talents who entered our show, designating “Best Trumpet Player” and “Best Story-Teller”, “Crowd Favorite” and “Best Performance by a Band”, were among some of the winning categories.

Winning performers had their pick from a table laden with various gifts, trinkets and prizes our market-members had assembled, including a gift basket of soaps and body rubs from S&S Kid Farm, a big beautiful potted petunia and a basket of fresh eggs from Hide & Go Peep, and a pair of wooden book-ends depicting a horse to name a few.

Here’s my group below: “The Appalachian Sheep Dawgs”, including Alyssa (all but hidden behind the curtain from this angle─sorry Alyssa!), Ken Hahn (my banjo instructor), myself (in red) and the daughters of Ken and his wife Kamala: on guitar is Victoria , and Amelie on the fiddle.

Note: Don’t laugh at me when you watch this!!! I’m still a novice when it comes to playing the banjo, with only a year’s experience on the instrument under my belt. It takes utter concentration for me to not drop the ball in front of a room filled with 70+/- people!

At the very end of the evening we raffled off the tub-trug gift basket donated by Johnny’s Selected Seeds, containing an assortment of seeds, garden gloves, a Johnny’s beanie, a trowel and a hand-held seed-sower.

jss gift tub trub
Gift tub-trub donated by Johnny’s filled with misc. garden supplies!

Thanks to everyone who participated and came out for this show, our market was able to raise nearly $300 between the raffle and the tickets-by-donation. These funds, in addition to a $500 donation from Backyard Farms and a $200 donation by Paine’s Dairy Farm (both of Madison, Maine), means we have surpassed our fundraising goals and we will be able to keep the Maine Harvest Bucks program going at the Madison Farmers’ Market! Yaaaaay!

No…I can’t take credit for what happened at the East Madison Grange on the night of Sunday, May 27th, but as I sat there amid the crowd gathered together to watch this wide-ranging display of talents in the name of local food, local farms, and community support, I was overwhelmed with a profound sense of love and affection, and I knew that I had contributed to something really special. In rural central Maine, a small, wayward band of grassroots activists─also known as farmers─collaborated to bring the public out in direct support of the community they serve. Life doesn’t get much more beautiful than that, if you ask me, and I am grateful every day to be able to call myself a farmer.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to leave a comment below if you are inspired to share with us. And be sure to subscribe to receive the latest updates from Runamuk directly to your in-box!

Official Closing Date

At long last I have an Official Closing Date on my #foreverfarm! We have overcome every hurdle─Runamuk and I, and this property I’ve affectionately dubbed “the Hive House”─in order to come together to form this union between farmer and farm. There’s no going back now; it’s only a matter of time before I finally have a permanent location for my farm and family.

Everything that I am, and everything that I have ever done in my life, has been leading me to this moment. It has taken everything I have to get here─years and years of hard work, determination, and sacrifice. Now I am exhausted from my long journey, and I’ve reached the end of my proverbial rope.

This week, my agent at the FSA, Nathan informed me that the title search had come back clear and as such has been approved. They’ve ordered the title insurance─the last piece of the FSA loan puzzle. Nathan was about to schedule Closing for next week, when we discovered an unexpected speed bump.

beeswax soap at amrket
Some of Runamuk’s beeswax soap on display at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

Up til now we’d been operating under the impression that Closing would happen just as soon as all of the hurdles had been overcome and the paperwork could be ready. However, to allow enough time for the FSA’s interminable loan process we’d sited on the Sale Contract that Closing would occur on or before June 29th. Since this was my second time through the process, Nathan has been pushing my paperwork through as quickly as he could, but we learned this week that the Sellers will not be ready to Close before the June 29 deadline.

In order to Close early both parties have to agree, and that is not going to happen in this case.

I was shocked. I had not entertained the notion that it could possibly take til the end of June to resolve this part of my life and move onto the next. What’s more, it’s become increasingly difficult to live and farm under my present circumstances. These temporary lodgings have served their purpose─this tiny trailerstead in the backwoods of central Maine has been the stepping stone I needed to make Runamuk’s farm-purchase happen─but I was aghast at having to live and farm 5 more weeks under these conditions.

Runamuk needs the proper infrastructure to be able to function successfully. I need a proper home for myself and my family, and space to do my own thing. In these temporary conditions I’m lacking space to assemble and store hive equipment, I have no place to dry the herbs used to make Runamuk’s various beeswax salves, there isn’t space to extract the remaining honey that I have still waiting in combs from last fall’s harvest, and I am lacking pasture to move my new pullets onto so they’re eating way more of that expensive organic grain than they otherwise would be.

What’s more, while I was able to plant my potatoes, onions, and garlic at this temporary location, I was intending to plant the remainder of my garden at the Hive House. With a Closing Date of June 29th I’ll have to abandon many of the full-season crops I typically plant: the tomatoes and winter squashes etc, which directly impacts my ability to produce food to store to see my family though the winter.

All of this will affect my farm-income and I’m concerned about being able to meet the financial projections I forecasted for the FSA when I assembled my paperwork for this loan. Unfortunately there’s really nothing to be done for it. Legally the Sellers are within their rights. If you look at it from their perspective, you can imagine what it might be like to have to say goodbye to the home they’ve known their entire adult lives. I’m sure that’s not easy either.

limited availability
Signage at farmers’ market explaining the sparseness of Runamuk’s booth; currently I’m out of honey, and since the new flock has not yet started laying, I don’t have eggs either.

Since there’s nothing to be done for it, I’ve accepted this year for what it is─a year of transition for Runamuk. I’ve decided to take it easy on myself; buying a farm through the FSA is a daunting prospect even under the best of circumstances. Moving a farm is challenging for any farmer, and trying to continue farming while relocating your operation is an ambitious proposition for even the best of us. I’m doing good just to be at market, to still be making soap at all, and to be working with bees even as a landless farmer.

I’m incredibly stressed and anxious about the whole thing, and these last few weeks I’ve just been trying to hold on til Closing. When I learned I would have to wait 5 more weeks I wasn’t sure I could make it. But when I posted to my facebook community expressing my concerns, a wise friend (thank you Janet!) quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt:

tie a knotIt brings to mind this mental image of myself clinging to the knot at the end of my rope, hanging on for dear life while the Journey finds me whipping in the wind and rains like a ragdoll. And I just keep telling myself “Don’t let go!”

Come June 29th the Hive House will be mine and Runamuk will finally have a #foreverfarm. It’s a huge relief to know that everything is a GO─nothing can stop this sale now. If I can just tough it out a little longer I will soon be moving Runamuk and my family HOME. Check back soon for details regarding our upcoming Farm-Warming Party!!!

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Farmer Talent Show to Benefit the Madison Farmers’ Market

I’m donning my hat as Director of the Madison Farmers’ Market for this post, to unabashedly promote the market and our upcoming “Farmer Talent Show”.

madison farmers market
The Madison Farmers’ Market is held Saturdays May through October, 9 to1 at the Main Street Park in Madison, Maine.

It was a selfish endeavor, really─when I undertook to organize a farmers’ market in my rural hometown of Madison, Maine. I was a beginning farmer looking for a market close-to-home where I could sell my products to the community. The Madison Farmers’ Market is going into it’s 6th year now and it has become one of the most positive things in my life: a community of fellow farmers and caring patrons committed to fresh, nutritious food and to supporting their local economy.

Twenty-Mile Market

In a part of Maine where the loss of manufacturing mills and the waning timber industry has left 12% or more of all households living below the poverty line, I see a return to our agricultural roots as a huge opportunity for the people who live here. We can use agriculture as a means to boost our rural economies. Agriculture can enhance food security, reduce poverty through rural development, and we can even reduce the environmental impact of agricultural production. Pastoral economies need to take responsibility for themselves, promote creative new businesses that can sell to customers from outside the community and the new local food movement opens a lot of doors for those who are willing to think outside the box.

alice loves maine markets
This is Alice! She has a garden of her own, but makes it a point to stop in and visit regularly with our local farmers!

It’s been difficult to attract new farmers to the Madison Farmers’ Market because it is not a big money market like the Portland Farmers’ Market or the Lewiston-Auburn Farmers’ Market. Farmers who are making their weekly paychecks in a single farmers’ market want to join established markets where the customer base is reliable. In Madison, we’ve been faced with educating the community about the benefits and realities of food production as we grow our market in this traditionally conservative rural Maine community. This role is also not something that every farmer wants to take responsibility for.

As a result, the farmers I’ve managed to recruit for our rural farmers’ market are all located within a 20-mile radius of Madison, Maine. They are dedicated to this region because it’s their home, and they’re devoted to the community we’ve cultivated, committed to the support of each other, and together as a group we make up the Madison Farmers’ Market─one of the friendliest markets you’ll ever visit. We just enjoy each other’s company, and we enjoy the time spent outdoors selling our wares, doing what farmers are born to do: feed the people and nurture the Earth.

Accepting SNAP/EBT at the Madison Farmers’ Market has been instrumental in the growth of our community of faithful market-shoppers. Once we began participating in the Maine Harvest Bucks program, the Madison Farmers’ Market really saw a dramatic increase in attendance as low-income families came to take advantage of the “Bonus Bucks”.

Here’s how it Maine Harvest Bucks works:

The program is geared toward increasing the nutritional value of the federal nutrition assistance dollars─SNAP/EBT. It allows those shoppers to buy more healthy food, supports local farmers, and keeps food dollars within the local economy.

Since we serve a part of the state that is economically depressed, the members of the Madison Farmers’ Market are all in consensus that it’s important to be able to offer this program at our market. None of us are getting rich doing this, but we’re serving our community and working in direct support of ourselves and in direct support of the people around us. It all brings a sense of intrinsic reward that lends meaning and value to the farmer.

harvest bucks
The Maine Harvest Bucks program allows SNAP shoppers increased access to fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables!

Each year, well before the start of the market season, the market applies with the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets to participate in the Maine Harvest Bucks nutrition incentive program. MFFM secures federal funding and various grants for the program, and then redistributes funds to participating markets accordingly. This year however, there is a funding gap and participating markets like Madison’s have had to decide whether or not to temporarily suspend their MHB programs, or to take on the responsibility of raising the funds themselves to cover the costs of the incentive-program.

Members of the Madison Farmers’ Market were adamant that we should do everything we can to keep this program running, and to that end I’ve devised a fundraising strategy to help us raise the $800 dollars the market needs to support the Maine Harvest Bucks incentives─including a really exciting Farmer Talent Show!

talent show
TALENT WANTED: You should do it! You’re pretty cool!

In return for a donation we’re offering a fun-filled show for the whole family, with free popcorn. There will be a raffle and a bake sale, too. I’m working on lining up special Guest Judges, and prizes for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place performances. Already Johnny’s Selected Seeds has donated a tub-trug of garden supplies in response to the flyers I put up about the office, and the emails I sent to the entire company announcing my search for farmers with talent.

Sonia Acevedo from Hide & Go Peep Farm of East Madison, Maine.

We’re looking for farmers and gardeners from across the state of Maine, and especially those who are local to central Maine, to perform in our Farmer Talent Show. Open to any special talent: musicians, singers, dancers, rappers, actors, comedians, magicians and more─and, while we’re putting farmers in the spotlight, the members of the Madison Farmers’ Market are an inclusive group and we would never turn away anyone who wanted to perform.

So far we’ve got 3 acts─including myself with my friend and banjo instructor Ken Hahn. When I told Ken about the upcoming show he offered to play alongside me, and we’ve already picked out 3 songs to polish up before the big event. It’s going to be a really great time, so if you’re reading this and you’re a Maine-resident─and especially if you’re local to Madison and the Somerset County area─be sure to help us spread the word!

Find the Madison Farmers’ Market on Facebook and share our Farmer Talent Show event with friends. OR: share our Talent Wanted graphic (available on our Facebook page) on your timeline to let friends and family in your network know that we’re looking for talented people to perform. Stay tuned for more updates coming soon from Runamuk!

Now That We’re Buying a Farm: Looking Ahead to 2018

inspect your nucleus colonies

You may be wondering what’s next for Runamuk now that we’re buying a farm. When will we move? What are we going to do with the new property? Will we get goats and put up a high tunnel to start making cheese and growing high value tomato crops hydroponically? What’s the plan, Sam? Read on as we look ahead to 2018.

runamuk apiaries
The Runamuk apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm, early in the spring of 2017.

Firstly, I have to remind everyone that technically this is not a done deal. Yes, I have the FSA’s approval, however it’s all contingent upon the property appraisal, which should be done sometime this month. Remember, the government isn’t going to pay more than what the property is worth, so hopefully the price the Seller and I agreed upon is equal to─or less than─what the Swinging Bridge Farm is worth. If not I’ll have to hope and pray the Seller will re-negotiate with me. I think I’m getting a good deal, so I’m pretty optimistic.

That being said, the plan for Runamuk remains essentially the same as it’s always been: to establish a demonstration farm advocating pollinator conservation and self-sufficiency for a more sustainable lifestyle. To do that I will be employing permacuture principles, working with the land to cultivate a veritable food forest and perennial gardens where my family can thrive in tandem with the natural forces already in play at the Swinging Bridge Farm (SBF). With rambling gardens surrounding the farmhouse and trails throughout the forested hillside, I will create a destination and learning center.

To that end, I’ve created A NEW 5 YEAR PLAN! Yaaaaaaay!

I love me a good 5 year plan lol. I created a 5 year plan for the purchase of a farm for my family and for Runamuk. While it actually wound up taking me 8 years to achieve that goal, in the end I did manage to land the FSA’s approval on my loan request for purchase of SBF. Now it’s time for the next leg of my farming journey, in which I can actually employ the methods I’ve so long studied. I can finally get down to the business of farming for bees.

When do we move?

We won’t know our move-in date for sure until after we officially close on the sale, and that might take months. The FSA waits for their appraisal of the property to come back, as well as the results of inspections, before closing. Sometimes it takes months to get all of the documentation in order. Nathan Persinger (the FSA agent I’ve been working with) was careful to warn me that if the money runs out while we’re waiting on the paperwork, I’d have to wait until the FSA’s funds are replenished in their next fiscal year, which doesn’t begin until October.

But that’s worst case scenario. Things have actually been moving along rather rapidly. The appraisal could have taken up to 3 months to get back, but the job has already been awarded and the contractor slated mid-January for his report to come in.

There’s a small woodstove already in place at SBF.

It looks like I’ll be able to get around most of the inspections the FSA had requested because as no one is living at SBF and the house was winterized this fall. We came up with a list of contractors who have worked on the utilities there in the last few years and Nathan has gotten statements from them regarding the condition of the plumbing, electric and heating systems. So the FSA will waive those inspections, and because of sub-zero temperatures here in Maine I couldn’t get into the well to get a water sample, so they’re waiving the water test too.

That just leaves the chimney inspection, which is hugely important. I want to be able to use the woodstove there and I certainly don’t want to risk burning down my new home, so I’ve been trying to get in touch with the local fire department. I’m still working to connect with someone on this.

The way things are moving along, I suspect that we might close as soon as February, but I don’t dare to believe it just yet. It all still seems a little surreal: am I really buying a farm? Will this beautiful fairy tale really come true? With all 150 acres and so many magnificent trees to befriend? Could it really be?

I’ve set a tentative date of mid to late April for the #GreatFarmMove #FinalChapter. It’ll be mud-season here in Maine; the Middle Road is a long and winding dirt road. Ironically it’s somehow fitting lol. I’m hoping to rope a few friends into helping; you know I’d do the same for them.

Here’s a basic overview of my next 5 years
at the Swinging Bridge Farm:

2018; Year 1

Hearth & Home:This first year is largely about establishing Runamuk’s Zone 0─my homestead. This move was not for Runamuk alone; this was necessary for my family. Living in such tight quarters at Paul’s I realized how important family space is. What’s more, with a child on the Spectrum having personal spaces is important to the well-being of the household. At the Swinging Bridge Farm each of my boys can have their own room; a space of their own. There’s space for a dinning table, a family room, and a beautiful yard right outside the backdoor where we can put a picnic table.

Observe: I’m pretty adamant about taking time to get to know my new property before jumping into too much without really understanding how the natural processes work there. I’ve moved around enough to know that every piece of land is unique and rain, sun, wind, and snow all affect the landscape differently.

hoop house
The hoop-coop I built at Paul’s, which later became just a hoop-house.

Chicken Housing: The chickens will be housed temporarily in a hoop-house on the spot that will become my homestead garden. Until I get their coop built they can eat the weeds, fertilize and cultivate the soil there. By August I plan to have the chickens moved and that plot will be cover cropped so that next year I can plant my first vegetables there.

Garden Transition: Paul and I have hashed out an agreement that allows me continued access to his garden space at 26 Goodine’s Way. I will grow my family’s food in Norridgewock this year, focusing on crops that are less needy─like potatoes, beans, carrots, and garlic─along with a crop of onions for market.

In year 1 the garden at SBF will consist of just a handful of container-grown vegetables: cherry tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash, and some greens too, while I take this first season to prepare the new garden site.

A Few Projects: I do have short list of projects I want to get to in Year 1. Installing a water cachement system is important for any vegetable production. I plan to inoculate a series of logs with mushroom spawn, mark maples for homestead syrup production in 2019, and I want to reclaim the flower bed in front of the house.

New Apiary Site: I won’t actually be moving all of my hives to the new farm. My best apiary is the one located at Hyl-Tun Farm on Rt 43 in Starks, the home of Ernie and Gwen Hilton, who are devoted supporters of Runamuk. There the rolling hay pastures spread out for miles; such high quality bee-forage is too valuable to give up. This site produces the lion’s share of my honey crop, and Gwen has crafted a haying schedule that protects both my bees, and the local bobolink population. Besides that, beehives are heavy─and filled with bees! They’re not easy to move, so I’m just going to leave that apiary exactly as it is.

I plan to install an ALL NEW apiary at SBF! Yay! more bees!!! There I’ll raise my Queens and build nucs to overwinter. That’s is how I intend to expand my operation to sell Maine-raised bees and mated-Queens, make more honey, and reach more people with my bee-friendly message. It’s a huge step for Runamuk and I’m really excited about it.

preparing bees for winter
Bees do not hibernate through the winter.

2019; Year 2

Zone Mapping: During the 2018-2019 winter I will work out my permaculture maps, designing my zones and sketching out rough layout for the farm and conservation center. The intention is to establish a food forest with an array of fruit and nut trees, as well as a series of 1-acre perennial gardens geared toward pollinators and wildlife. Because SBF is situated on a high hillside amid the foothills of Maine’s western mountains, laying the farm out on contour is going to be crucial for utilizing the water run off, and for preventing soil erosion.

Open 10 Acres: To create the conservation farm I have envisioned will require me to open up about 10 acres around the farmhouse, taking down a selection of trees (meaning-not clearcut). I don’t take that lightly; the trees are a huge part of the reason I fell in love with the property in the first place! What’s more, because my mortgage will be held by the government I have to apply to harvest the timber off my property. The harvesting will have to take place during the winter, so as not to damage the landscape, and you can bet I will be very picky about who does the job and which trees will go.

sbf_apple trees
Apple trees in need of pruning at SBF.

Pruning Apple Trees: There are about a dozen existing apple trees at SBF, remnants of an old orchard standing in neat rows on the hillside behind the farmhouse. Many of these trees still bear apples, but need love─and pruning─to reinvigorate them. In year 1 I’ll remove the dead wood from the canopies of the apple trees. Then in  late winter and early spring of Year 2: 2019 we’ll start reclaiming the gnarly old apple trees by implementing a 3-year pruning regimen.

Gardens! There will be 6 different pollinator gardens in all; in Year 2 garden number 1 is scheduled for cultivation, as well as installation of fruit and nut trees to establish a “food forest”.

The hoop-house will be used for starting all of my own bee-friendly plants: largely perennials, but also some annuals. I plan to use a diverse array of native flowering perennials to cultivate the various pollinator gardens that will become the basis for my pollinator conservation farm. To add to my farm’s income I’ll sell some of my seedlings, but I expect most of them will find homes at Runamuk.

We’ll grow all of our crops in the homestead garden at SBF this year, while smothering a new plot nearby to increase vegetable production. I’d love nothing more than to never have to buy vegetables at the grocery store ever again.

Trail Mapping: The previous owner of the Swinging Bridge Farm maintained a series of Jeep trails throughout the woods there. I plan to mark and map them. Over the upcoming years I’ll create additional trails, including one that runs through the woods to connect with the Wire Bridge Road so that my family, friends and guests can walk to the historical site directly from SBF.

2020; Year 3

Expand Food Forest: I expect these first few years to be a flurry of planting, and then it will slow down some. Knowing me though, I’ll forever face each spring with some new additions to the perennial gardens and food forest.

Gardens: Establishing pollinator gardens 2 and 3 this year. Annual improvement and/or maintenance to established gardens.

conservation driving runamuk
“Bee Hotel” Just one example of a native bee nesting site. Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Birdhouses & Bee Hotel: With workspace in the barn for assembling hive equipment, I’d like to start putting together a variety of birdhouses to install throughout my 150 acres to further promote wildlife. I’ve long admired the “bee hotel” too, and in year 3 at SBF I’m shooting to finally construct one for Runamuk.

High Tunnel? There may be opportunity to expand my offering of pollinator plants and bee-friendly seedlings. If so, I’d consider setting up a high tunnel at the Swinging Bridge Farm for propagation. Having a space where I can protect seedlings or crops from the elements opens the door to other opportunities too; I could grow more vegetables earlier and later in the season, or I could grow microgreens. It really depends on my income needs, demand, and my internal zeal for the project, so I’m just leaving this on the table for now.

Years 4 & 5

Continue to Expand Food Forest: I’d like to have the majority of the food forest installed by this point, but there may be just a few more additions. Probably mostly pruning, mulching and maintaining plants that are still establishing themselves.

Orchard: Continue with 3 year pruning regimen to improve apple tree health and increase fruit production.

Gardens: Pollinator gardens 4, 5, and 6 are slated to be brought to life in years 4 and 5. I’m hoping to have a “crew” on the farm during the summers─consisting of my own 2 boys, as well as an apprentice and maybe the occasional WOOFER. With extra hands and a careful plan, I hope to get a base start on the gardens which can then can be added to, improved and cultivated in the years to come.

More birdhouses, educational plaques: I aspire to spend time during every winter building a birdhouse or two, to attract new creatures or grow an existing population. I’m hoping my boys might take an interest in woodworking too, but even if they don’t I’ll add to my collection of birdhouses, bat houses, and butterfly houses every year. The plaques will be sited throughout the property identifying the different gardens and habitats, providing information to educate guests. I’m leaning towards having these professionally done.

Education Center: Sharing what I’ve learned about nature, bees and pollinators, and living a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle is important to me. Teaching other people to be more bee-friendly has long been a driving force within Runamuk, and with a forever-farm home of our own we can finally begin to get serious about it. I picture a cordwood structure where I can host groups, families, or children on a class trip for workshops or special events. This structure may or may not be hexagonal like a honeycomb lol; I haven’t decided yet.

inspect your nucleus coloniesIn Pencil

There you have it folks. The 5 year plan for Runamuk at the Swinging Bridge Farm. The first 2-3 years are fairly clear, beyond that it’s harder to predict what will be important. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns that all have an impact on our day to day existence. It’s impossible to know what lies ahead. That’s why I like to write my 5 year plans in pencil; so I can make changes when necessary. I’ve learned that the ability to remain flexible─to pivot when circumstances dictate─is an advantageous skill crucial to success.

Through it all I will continue to keep bees, expanding my apiary (more bees! more bees!), producing my own Queens and raising overwintered nucleus colonies for myself and for sale to local beekeepers. I will keep making beeswax soaps and herbal salves, and we will still have chickens for egg production─we’ll just have more chickens lol. The income the farm makes from those operations will be supplemented by some vegetable and seedling sales, and through sponsorship of this blog. None of that will change really, only intensify.

As of right now, the plan is to continue working seasonally and part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds to help cover my personal living expenses, which Runamuk does not pay for. I’m expecting to be trekking back and forth to the office for the next 2-3 years until I can grow my income from farming and writing to the point where I no longer need the off-farm job.

follow runamuk
Be sure to follow Runamuk by email, on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn─or find us on Instagram!

No where have I included my intention to publish my first book. I’m hoping that with the security and space SBF offers, I’ll finally be able to begin working on the first of what I hope will be many books: both fictional and non-fiction. That would be something new…. But as an untried author I can’t justify including a book in the official plan, and I definitely can’t depend on it as a source of income. This project is on the list, it’s just not penciled in.

We’re on the cusp of a new adventure, something really epic─worthy almost of a Tolkien-style saga. It’s all so exhilarating, but the journey can’t officially get under way until we Close on the sale of the Swinging Bridge Farm. I’m focused right now on just getting through January and this bitter cold, one day at a time. Soon this new leg of my journey as a farmer will begin; I know it won’t be easy, but I’m absolutely positive it will all be worth it.

Check back soon for the latest from Runamuk! Better yet─subscribe to this blog by email to receive the latest posts directly in your inbox!

You may be wondering what’s next for Runamuk now that we’re buying a farm. When will we move? What are we going to do with the new property? Will we get goats and put up a high tunnel to start making cheese and growing high value tomato crops hydroponically? What’s the plan, Sam? Read on as we look ahead to 2018.

A good season

spring honey 2017

It’s been a good season for Runamuk, all things considered. The weather has been good this year, with a good amount of rain and an equally good amount of sun. There have been a few scorchers and a few chilly nights, but all around it’s just been a decent season and farmers all over Maine have reveled in a year where they can simply farm and grow. A welcome change after last year’s drought.

In the Apiary

Beehives apiary august 2017
The apiary in August!

With adequate rain, the flowers have offered up plenty of nectar this season, and the bees at the apiary in the Hyl-Tun pastures have produced a crop of spring honey. After 2 years without honey to sell I now have available both a fall honey (from the 2016 season) and this new spring honey.  Yaaaaaaay!

spring honey 2017
If you haven’t tried honey on your Saturday morning pancakes, you don’t know what you’re missing!!!

I’ve put out both varieties in sampling at market and at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, so that folks can taste and learn about the different types of honey. Most people have no idea that there’s more than one type of honey, so accustomed to the standard “Clover Honey” found in the mainstream grocery store is the general population.

It all comes down to the flowers the bees are foraging on. Different types of flowers will produce varying flavors─even varying consistencies of honey. Honey will differ from one region to the next, as the floral sources are a little different from landscape to landscape. Here in Maine the spring honey is typically lighter in color, sweeter and thinner; whereas the fall crop will be darker and has a more robust flavor, and tends to crystallize quite a lot fast because it has a lower moisture content.

Having honey has meant a huge boost to Runamuk’s income, and after having none these last couple years due to harsh weather and the fall-out from my divorce in 2015─it feels really good to have been able to make a come back.

In the Garden

squash neighborhood and sunflowers
The squash neighborhood has turned out to be very productive this year!

The sandy patch of soil at 26 Goodine’s Way where Runamuk has parked itself during the interim has produced a respectable amount of food to feed this farmer. It’s a small garden, so I’m not taking many vegetables to the farmers’ market, but I am able to feed my family with it.

Our strategy to house the chickens for the winter on the garden site has paid off. Through the winter and early this spring the chickens worked the soil for us, cleaning up weeds and adding manure. In early May we moved them out of the garden into a movable hoop-coop and have allowed them to free range all summer. The fence that had protected the birds throughout the winter, now kept them out of the garden so we could grow our crops.

Read about the “Hoop-Coop” I built in the face of our impending farm-move to house the Runamuk laying flock!

amaranth 2017
Paul grew a hedgerow of Amaranth, which I had never tried before. Now I am smitten with it!

We’ve had lots of greens, radishes and turnips, beets, fresh onions and potatoes, zucchini and summer squash galore, and I’m just beginning to get cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. My winter squashes have done fabulous, and I even did a crop of dry beans for winter soups and stews. When a couple of wayward pumpkin seeds sprouted in the manure pile left after cleaning out the former hoop-coop, I poked a few more pumpkin seeds into the pile for my Thanksgiving pies and those have grown to sprawl all over too, with several pumpkins getting big and fat under the broad-leafed foliage.

It’s been a new experience for me, dealing with such sandy soil. The stuff is literally classified as “Dune sand”. The kind you want at the beach or in your toddler’s sandbox─NOT in your garden. At the start of the season as I planted my seedlings into the sand I felt despair, feeling it was surely an act of futility to ask anything the grow in that “soil”. This garden has enforced for me the idea that you can absolutely grow your own food just about anywhere with dedication and a lot of hard work.

Check out this post to learn more about my real food challenge!

The key to growing in sand, we’ve found, has been the addition of well-composted manure to the beds─lots and lots of it─and we mulched everything to help retain moisture. Paul set up an irrigation system  for the garden that drew from an unused well here; he’s watered the garden religiously every morning and evening, and then even 2 or 3 or 4 times during the day when the sun burns hot. With a passion for soil-building and growing food, Paul has more or less taken over the garden aspect of the Runamuk venture, freeing me up to focus on the bees, while still allowing me to keep my hands in the dirt.

The Runamuk FarmRaiser

farmraiser launch countdown
The Runamuk FarmRaiser launch countdown on my phone! Gasp!

There are just 11 days left before the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign launches on September 1st. Preparations for the campaign have consumed my spare time─as if I had any to begin with lol! The whole thing is pretty scary and there have been several mornings I’ve woken up at 3am with my heart pounding and anxiety coursing hotly through my veins.

I remind myself during these moments of panic that it really doesn’t matter how much or how little the gofundme campaign raises, the FSA offers financing on the down-payment as well, but I can’t help feeling that the more I am able to raise the better it’s going to look to the land-owner, or the more doors the down-payment fund might open for Runamuk. It’s a huge deal and I feel as though much of what Runamuk is─or can be─hinges upon the success of this crowdfunding campaign.

balfour farm with maine farmland trust
I attended a dinner at Balfour Farm recently, that was sponsored by the Maine Farmland Trust! Connected with some kindred spirits and made some new connections; what a great group of people!

So what do I do at 3 in the morning when fear prevents me from sleeping? I work! I’ve put together an entire Media Kit containing flyers, press release, full-length article, HD pictures, social media graphics and more. Friends have volunteered to post flyers and help spread the word too, so feel free to check out the resources in this file on my Google Drive. If you’re inspired, go ahead and share my story with your friends, print out some fliers and paper the town!

billys belly bluegrass festival
My friend Sonia Acevedo with her offspring Eden, on stage at Billy’s Belly Bluegrass Festival in Anson.

I’ll be visiting local events over the next few weeks to tell the community about the Runamuk FarmRraiser and to invite folks to the upcoming party on October 1st. It’s been fun getting out there in the broader community to connect with people; I’ve run into old friends, finally met friends whom I’d only ever known online, and made a lot of new friends too. I’ve invited every one of them to my party lol.

The press release went out to local papers last week, and I contacted a few journalists that I have connections with─hoping to increase exposure of the Runamuk FarmRaiser. I also have a long list of organizations I want to reach out to to share my mission for a pollinator conservation farm. Now I just need to make a few videos: an explainer video to go along with my campaign, a teaser video, and a couple of “behind-the-scenes” videos. Stay tuned to see my attempt at video-making coming soon!

As anxious as I am about the gofundme campaign, I’m equally as excited to share the upcoming FarmRaiser party with friends, not just as a fundraiser, but as a celebration of farming and friendship─and bees! My talented and beautiful friend Sonia Acevedo from Hide & Go Peep Farm is going to play for us, and I’m working on recruiting some other musicians but I can’t give out the details on that til it’s nailed down, so check in with me later! Otherwise there will be lots of great food to share (it’s pot-luck!), local brew to imbibe, hay bales to sit upon under barn rafters lit with twinkling white holiday lights, and many many good friends to catch up with. It’s going to be a really fun time and I hope you’ll come spend the evening with us on Sunday October 1st!

Shifting focus

kale beet seedlings
Kale and beet seedlings we sowed for harvesting later this fall and winter.

Summer seems to have passed in the blink of an eye and now back-to-school season and the impending cooler weather of fall are approaching at break-neck speed. Our focus is shifting from growing and producing, to self-preservation for the coming winter: Paul has begun cutting up logs that will become our winter heating, we’re talking about how to protect the laying hens from the minks this winter, and about how we will store the potatoes. Even now that it’s almost late-August we’re still poking seeds in the ground to grow crops that we will harvest later in December and January when there is snow on the ground. I love the seasonality of this farming life of mine; each season brings it’s own ups and downs but it’s always part of the turning wheel of the year.

Thanks so much for following along and stay tuned for more updates coming soon from Runamuk!

Save bees! Help Runamuk go home!

Sometimes I joke that my status as a landless farmer and the on-going search for Runamuk’s forever-farm has given new meaning to the name “Runamuk”. Originally I named the farm after the chaos homeschooling 2 rowdy boys inspired in my life, but we’ve had 6 moves in Runamuk’s lifetime (7 years). Lack of capital and land-access are the number one challenges beginning farmers are facing, so I know at least that I’m in good company. With so many moves it’s been hard to get ahead in the business; each move is a financial set-back and only serves to delay the good work that I could be doing.

A farm is built up through the farmers’ efforts at building soil, crops and livestock year after year; that can’t happen unless there is a long-term situation for the farmer. I feel almost as though I am in suspended animation. There are plants I want to grow, agricultural and conservation methods I want to try, animals I’d like to raise, and the kind of production that can only come through years and years of dedication to the same piece of Earth.

But Runamuk is meant to be so much more than just a farm. Runamuk is a conservation and demonstration farm.

runamuk farmraiser infographic

bee-friendly farmingWe’re practicing regenerative agriculture and bee-friendly farming to lead by example, teaching others how they too can live in coexistence with pollinators and the natural world around us. Agritourism is meant to be part of my business with on-farm workshops, bee-schools and tours. In our current situation the apiary is located on someone else’s farm, while we live and homestead in a situation that is not conducive to having the public stop by.

Farming isn’t always picture-perfect, but to sell a product or idea, to influence folks to your way of thinking (as in to persuade the public that bee-friendly living and farming is a good idea)─you have to meet folks halfway. The reality is that people have preconceived perceptions of what a farm looks like and in order to change someone’s way of thinking you have to meet them half-way in order to gain any traction with them.

That’s why I’m still searching for a forever-farm home that fulfills the vision I have for Runamuk. It’s also the motivation behind my 2-part campaign I’ve dubbed rhe: “Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm”

The Vision for Runamuk (the short version)

Set in the heart of the western Maine mountains, this 100-acre conservation farm will be ideal for raising superior honeybee stock adapted to Maine’s challenging conditions. Perennial food forests and gardens will be laid out to feed both the farmer and the bees, along with wildflower meadows and pastures which are rotationally grazed or mowed to conserve wildlife and local populations of beneficial insects like pollinators, while still allowing income and management of the fields.

Well-defined walking paths will lead the way throughout the conservation farm, with plaques identifying the habitat and the wildlife supported by it. Nesting boxes for birds, bats, bees and butterflies will be scattered about the conservation farm attracting wildlife and educating the public─with a grand “bee hotel” providing habitat for a spectrum of native bees.

Visitors will find benches about the farm for sitting, allowing them to absorbing nature and take in the extensive demonstration gardens. A picnic area and a fire pit for community gatherings and celebrations will attract school field trips or families on vacation. The Runamuk Conservation Farm will be a welcoming stop for tourists passing through the area, and a destination for anyone looking to learn about beekeeping, pollinator conservation, bee-friendly farming, regenerative agriculture or sustainable living.

Read the Vision for the Runamuk Conservation Farm in it’s entirety.

Going for it

This is the vision that I have for Runamuk and whether it is I that cannot let go the dream, or the dream that refuses to let go of me, I cannot say. I only know that it burns inside me and I have neither the strength nor the will to deny it any longer. I’m going for it.

The Campaign

In 2 parts, friends and followers can help Runamuk find it’s forever-farm home and raise funds for the down payment on that property.

Part A: Utilizing social media to spread the word about what we are looking for to connect with a land-owner who might potentially be willing to work with us to preserve their property for future generations. I’ve listed below the kind of things I’m looking for in Runamuk’s forever-farm and created a sharable graphic to make it easy to circulate the information. Begin: NOW!

Part B: Crowdfunding for the down-payment on that forever-farm property. I’m shooting for  $20K─that would give us a 20% down-payment on a property with a $100K price tag, but any amount raised will help in the purchase. If we should raise more than that it would mean a lower mortgage or a better property (maybe even one with housing?), and if we don’t raise that much that’s ok too─at least we’ll have a chunk of change to offer.

I’m brainstorming a list of perks to offer in exchange for a pledge of support for my cause. Some of the ideas I have include: pollinator-themed refrigerator magnets, a Soap CSA─3 bars a month for 12 months, gift certificates for pollinator plants, Beekeeping 101 with me (either at my apiary or via Skype). Those are just a few ideas; I’m open to suggestions, and if you’re interested in being a part of the team to help organize this campaign and finally take Runamuk home to begin the work of promoting pollinators in earnest, please let me know.

“Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm” Campaign Launches: September 1st, 2017.

What we’re looking for

help runamuk find forever farm

Acreage:

You can grow a surprising amount of food on a smaller parcel of land and increasingly farmers are doing just that. I’m helping Paul to establish a perennial food-forest garden right here so that his Norridgewock property will support itself. For the scope of the Runamuk project however, we’re looking for at least a hundred acres to farm on.

Price: I’d prefer to keep my debt as low as possible, so I’m shooting for a price tag of about $100K. The bigger the number the more queasy I get. After scouring the market for the last 5 years I know that the beautiful old farmhouses with acreage still in-tact can be anywhere from $150-$360 or even more. So unless a golden opportunity comes along, we’ll probably be looking for land without existing infrastructure.

A View: Such an view on the horizon lends much beauty to the setting, and Runamuk will surely inspire it’s guests to make big changes in their lives.

Secluded: My strategy is to develop a hygienic honeybee strain that is adapted to the mountainous region of western Maine, tapping into potential feral colonies that might still reside in the reserved public conservation lands in that part of the state. A location apart from the state’s other commercial apiaries offers more control over genetics.

Phillips-Area: After spending so much time pouring over realty listings, I’ve only recently come to realize that the area around Phillips, Maine seems to best meet both my vision and my needs. It’s not too terribly far from Madison-Anson to Phillips, and Route 4 is a main avenue for tourists traveling to our Rangeley Lakes region. Set right in the heart of the mountainous Maine wilderness with some great farmlands along the Sandy River, this area really speaks to me.

Those are my must-haves, but I have some other things that I’m looking for when exploring property. Here they are in order of importance:

Pasture: This is actually very high on my list and I warred with myself on whether it should have been listed with the must-haves. 5 acres of open pasture would allow for quick set up of the Runamuk farm, offering open ground for gardening, bee-forage and a source for the medicinal herbs and flowers I use to make our value-added beeswax products. I would only be willing to sacrifice the pasture for “the Right” property.

Gnarly trees: I have a thing for old gnarly trees and would love to have some on my property. And I have a thing for mature-growth forests─forests that have not been cut for a long, long time. I am the proverbial tree-hugger.

Water-source: Having some kind of water source available would be a big boon to the operation, be it a stream, farm pond, or old dug farm-well.

History: There’s so much to be learned from those who came before us, and a sense of richness that comes from that kind of depth in a property. I would love to have one of the old 1800’s farmhouses with the fields all bisected by rockwalls and gnarly old trees lining the drive. Or even just a chunk of land that had once been a working farm, but has since been reclaimed by the Maine wilderness─with rock walls dividing the forest, an old stone-lined well or the crumbling stone foundation of the farmhouse that once lived there hidden amid the growth of the forest-floor like ghostly whispers from the past lingering to tell the story of that land.

Housing: I have very mixed feelings about our current housing situation, but because Paul has this remodeled trailer I have quite a lot of flexibility in this department. Even a run-down house will drive up the price of my forever-farm; by looking at land-only we can afford the larger acreage that we really want. These factors have moved existing housing lower and lower on my list of priorities for my forever-farm property.

How you can help

Lack of capital and land access are the two largest obstacles facing new farmers today and they have certainly played a role in Runamuk’s journey. Investment in the right property would enable us to establish a permanent location, allowing for Runamuk’s expansion into agritourism as a conservation farm.

Share our Story! You can help Runamuk right now just by sharing our search for our forever-farm property! This can help just by connecting us with land-owners who might be able to help us, or it might inspire friends in your network to share our story too. Sharing also helps us to grow our blog and reach new people who have not heard of Runamuk or our mission to save the world by saving bees. Share our forever-farm graphic, share my articles, share the link to our website or our facebook fanpage; share share share!

Make the Connection! Sometimes land-owners and new farmers work out arrangements that allow the beginning farmer to purchase land when traditional financing is not an option. If─by chance─you or someone you know has property in the Phillips, Maine area that they are committed to preserving for future generations, and if that someone has the means to offer a beginning farmer like me an owner-financed option, by all means─please share our search for Runamuk’s forever-farm home with them!

Join the Team! Crowdfunding is a big deal and not to be taken lightly. It’s a lot of work to run a successful fundraising campaign. If you’d like to be a part of bringing the Runamuk Conservation Farm to life, feel free to drop me a line. We could use all the help we can get!

Donate! If you are able to donate and want to give to our project we are humbled and grateful. Every dollar pledged will be used to secure a forever-farm home for Runamuk so that we can build this pollinator conservation farm, allowing us to teach bee-friendly coexistence and make those lessons accessible to the public. You can wait until the official start of the crowdfunding campaign on October 1st, or feel free to donate now using the “Buy me a coffee” widget in the lower left-hand corner of our site (powered by PayPal). Local friends and supporters who wish to help can pledge their support in person too, which actually means we’ll get to keep the entire donation as opposed to online transactions which accrue a processing fee.

For the good of us all

Runamuk’s income is growing─I’m projecting Runamuk will gross over $12K this year; that might be enough to go for a loan with the FSA or Farm Credit East. Regardless of which path I take to farm-ownership I know I’m going to need a down payment. Currently I’m working at Johnny’s Selected Seeds part-time to be able to bring my dream to life. I have $1200 saved and I’m working hard to keep expenses down so that we can continue to save for our forever-farm property.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to attempt a crowdfunding campaign for Runamuk. It’s not easy to ask people for money─hell! I have a hard time sometimes just charging friends for eggs! The idea of exposing myself online in such a big way is terrifying and I hesitate even as I am continuing to work on this infernal campaign. Yet, sometimes strangers actually do donate to Runamuk─see the “Buy me a coffee!” graphic at the bottom of the sidebar along the left here? Sometimes total strangers actually donate significant chunks of change because they found the info on this site useful, or because they were inspired by our mission. That was the deciding factor in the “Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm” campaign. People are noticing that our pollinator populations are significantly reduced and they want to help.

runamuk beekeeperIn a bizarre twist of fate, the girl who was once fearful of “bugs” has found her calling in life working with bees and for bees and other pollinators. Whatever the reason, this dream that I have for the Runamuk Conservation Farm won’t leave me be and so I must try however I can to see it brought to life. For the good of us all, people need to know how they can help pollinators; much in our world depends on these tiny creatures and the job they perform. If I can help through my work with the Runamuk Conservation Farm, then I feel I will have served the Earth and society in the best way I could.

You can help Runamuk find it’s forever-farm just by sharing our story with friends and family! Be sure to check back soon for more updates! Things are getting interesting! [paypal-donation]

8 tips for growing a fall garden

roots and greens bed

If you’re as serious as I am about growing your own food you might be considering extending your season with a fall garden. Maybe you’ve never heard of fall gardening or season extension; maybe you think the whole idea is absurd? Here in Maine, many old-school gardeners don’t plant til Memorial Day; they spend their summers in a flurry of harvesting and canning, are done with the garden by October and eat canned or frozen vegetables the rest of the year. If that’s the case you’re missing 3 seasons worth of gardening when you could potentially be producing fresh vegetables to feed yourself and your family. That’s right, you can garden through ALL the seasons with just a little strategic planning.

Read more about my Real Food Challenge!

growing a fall gardenWhy You Might Want a Fall Garden

Extending your season simply allows you to grow more food. It allows you to eat fresh vegetables longer, which is healthier for you because they’re higher in nutrition than canned or frozen foods.  Whether you’re striving to stretch your food budget or working to increase your own self-reliance, a fall garden is going to offer you the opportunity to grow fresh vegetables later into the fall and winter.

Fall Gardening Tips

#1 Know your expected first-frost date: Knowing when to expect that first frost in the fall allows you to determine when to plant a crop─or even if there’s time for a particular crop. If you’ve been gardening for a few years you may already know when to expect frost, but if you’re new to gardening you can ask a fellow gardener or use this free online calculator from the Old Farmers’ Almanac.

days-to-maturity
It’s important to know the number of days it takes for each vegetable to mature.

#2 Look for days-to-maturity on seed packets: Most seed companies include growing information specific to the breed and variety on the back of the seed packet.  Knowing the days-to-maturity of the crop you are planting allows you to time the sowing of your fall crop. If you can’t find that info on the packet you can usually find it on the seed-company’s website or you can even google the crop to get an idea of when to expect to be able to harvest the crop.

#3 Use a calendar to count back: Take the number of days-to-maturity and beginning on your first expected fall-frost date, count back on a calendar to find out when you should sow the crop.

#4 Utilize free online sowing calculators: There are a number of online calculators you can use to help with scheduling the sowing of your fall garden, including the Fall Harvest Planting Calculator available in the Planning Tools & Calculators section on the Johnny’s Selected Seeds website. These kinds of tools make planning easy and they’re free to use.

hakeuri turnips
These hakeuri turnips are easy to grow and have a short number of days to maturity. One of my favorites!

#5 Select cold-tolerant crops: Some crops thrive in the heat of summer (tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.), while  others do better in the cooler temperatures of the spring and fall. Typically that’s the roots and greens family, brassicas and peas; that’s a lot of different kinds of vegetables that you could be growing. Check out the selection of recommended varieties for Summer Planting for Fall Harvest at Johnny’s.

#6 Think long-term: Plan your garden strategically, with the intention of following a spring or summer crop with a crop for the fall. For example: I have a bed of lettuces, radishes and turnips I had planted first thing in the spring that is now finished producing those crops. I’ll sow my winter storage carrots there and I can cover them with agribon to grow them late into November.

roots and greens bed
Soon these lettuces will be done and I will plant carrots in their place!

#7 Keep it moist: Getting some of these cool-weather loving crops to germinate in the heat of high summer can be tricky even to the most experienced growers. Don’t let those beds dry out─maintain consistent moisture levels─and timing a watering around 10 or 11 in the morning can help to keep the soil temperatures low enough that those seeds can take root.

#8 Employ season-extension tools: You can grow so much with just a few wire hoops and a length of Ag-19 row cover for frost protection that it’s well worth the investment. To learn more about using row-cover to extend your growing season check out this article I wrote called: Agribon in the Garden. Watch for Johnny’s annual sale on season-extension supplies to catch a break on the price of the row-cover itself; they usually run that sale beginning in September.

Give it a try!

Just imagine how much more food you could be growing with a fall garden! Whatever the motive behind your garden, it’s easy enough to continue growing fresh vegetables later into the cold season. Why not give it a try and see for yourself?

Have you grown a fall garden before? Feel free to leave a comment below to share your experiences with season-extension!

Feeding ourselves

bass on a bed of shoots

The season is well underway here at Runamuk, much as it is on farms across Maine. Trees are budding, pastures are greening up, and I am lulled to sleep each night by a chorus of randy frog-song out my window. And now that the dandelion bloom is underway, I can breathe a sigh of relief and count my blessings; four of my five beehives came through the winter looking fantabulous!

Apiary Update!

The fifth came through Queenless, and with only a handful of older workers and a handful of drone brood, I know I have a laying worker in that hive. The workers can only lay unfertilized eggs, which results in drones.

mouse damaged beehiveThis hive was the victim of repeated mouse-attacks, and I suspect the Queen of hive #5 met with foul play. All is not lost though, the combs and stores that make up the hive will become the foundation for the summer nucs I plan to make as part of my apiary expansion.

The remaining four hives will be my production colonies, and we will have honey! Sweet, delicious, fragrant honey that tastes of millions of beautiful flowers kissed by the sun. The beauty of pollination manifested in this golden substance created by thousands of furry buzzing insects. It’s amazing.

It’s garden-time!

feeding myself
Pollinator plants for the Stonewall Garden; they’ve graduated from the grow racks in the living room, to the sunporch at night and outside during the day.

The bees are looking great, but it is the garden that has consumed me as of late. Things are getting serious here at Runamuk; this is not some hobby-farm and though I love the people I work with at Johnny’s, if I can earn my living tending bees and plants you can bet I’m going to do so. I’ve carefully planned Runamuk’s expansion so that the business can pay the farm’s bills, and I am working doggedly toward that ends.

After scraping by all winter in order to pay the bills, accepting that─to some degree─I was just going to be cold, and skipping luxuries like beer or wine, steak or roasts, even cheese─I’m serious about producing as much food as possible and storing it away for the winter.

making my own sourdough
We’ve been experimenting with making sourdough bread; it’s delicious!

Don’t worry, lol─I didn’t freeze and I didn’t go hungry. Jim’s old farmhouse is big and drafty, and heating it was a challenge. I kept to the main rooms and tacked blankets across the doorways, the kids and I slept downstairs and didn’t venture upstairs much. My monthly food allowance is about a hundred bucks a month, and while I’ve always been fairly frugal with the food budget, this winter was a lesson in Advanced Frugality 2.0. The bulk of my food allowance went toward just staples like flour and baking supplies. Then a few packages of meat, like burger or stew meat that could be stretched out by adding it to casseroles or soups; a few packages of frozen vegetables to supplement the vegetables I’d managed to store from last summer’s garden, butter and milk, and then the food allowance was gone.

Remember, it’s not just me here in this big old farmhouse alone, I have an apprentice whom I pay with room and board, which means I need to feed the guy. And don’t forget my own two boys who are at the farm part of each week.

old laying hens
They may not look like the chicken you get at the grocery store, but I am damn proud to be able to process my old laying hens!

We didn’t have a lot, but I think we were actually eating very well. The situation forced us to eliminate processed foods, extra snacks, and to really think about what we were spending our food dollars on. We ate oatmeal or eggs (from the Runamuk hens), pancakes, soup, potatoes and squashes from my garden (til they ran out), rice; meat was not used in every meal and it was not a featured part of entrees when we did have it.

I processed old hens and we ate chicken; we’re still eating chicken, lol!

Yet because of this frugal food budget we began experimenting with microgreens and eating salads. I got back into sprouting, bread-making, producing kombucha, and we began playing around with sourdough starters and cooking with dry beans.

Microgreens
Microgreens are super-easy to grow, even in the dead of winter!

To eat, you must produce!

There were a few times I showed up to work late, frazzled, and without a meal because I had nothing in my fridge or cupboards that I could just grab and go on my way out the door for work at Johnny’s. I’m grateful for friends there who offered me food and love and sustained my soul while I struggle to make this farming thing work.

We weren’t going hungry. We were eating real food, and I don’t mind terribly going without some of the luxuries so that I can continue to be here at Jim’s. But the financial situation brought home the importance of the garden, and drove home the concept that in order to eat well, I must produce. In order to sustain a household and the farm, I need to be able to feed the people who rely on it.

Not only does Runamuk need to be able to carry the cost of the farm financially, but it also needs to be able to feed it’s stewards.

I came across some interesting numbers when I was rewriting my business plan this winter. According to the USDA’s “Monthly Cost of Food” report, for me to feed a household of 4, on a “thrifty plan” I should be spending $646.70 a month. A low-cost to moderate food plan averages $850-$1059 a month, and households with a more “Liberal” food plan spend $1287 a month on average.

That’s $7760 annually on the thrifty plan. If I can grow my own food, not only will my household be eating better, but it frees those funds up for other uses. Paying the bills, investments for Runamuk, or the food products I am not able to produce myself (dairy products and some fruits).

And so feeding myself and my household has become a major goal for this year.

producing my own food
Tomato plants!

Gardens begin in the dead of winter with the dream and the planning. I began my garden plans back in January, researching how much food I would need to produce to feed a household of 4. There are varying numbers from an array of sources, but we decided to use figures from “How to Grow More Vegetables” as our baseline figures. This book is a wealth of information on biointensive and sustainable growing practices and contains an extensive collection of gardening charts.

red norland seed potatoes
Seed potatoes sprouting eyes before sowing.

Through careful recordkeeping we’ll be able to determine if we need to grow more or less of a particular crop. This year I am growing a lot of storage crops: 80lbs of seed potatoes, 7 bunches of onion plants from Johnny’s (translates into 420 onions), sucsession sowings of carrots and beets, 132-row-feet of dry beans, winter squashes, and don’t forget the garlic that I sowed last fall for harvest this July. Naturally there will be an assortment of tomatoes, but a focus on preserving the harvest in the form of tomato puree canned for later. Whatever snap peas and green beans I can get past the kids and into the freezer, I will blanch and store for the winter, cucumbers will be made into pickles, and of course there will be the joyous fresh-eating direct from the garden in the form of snacks or garden-to-table meals. I love shopping for dinner in my own garden!

The farm feeds the farmer

foraging for food
Fiddleheads are an early spring vegetable offered up by the land.

It’s important to remember that the vegetables I manage to produce are not just to “supplement” my diet. This is serious business; if I don’t grow vegetables, or raise some kind of meat or accept a different protein source, I don’t eat. I can’t allocate funds earmarked for the rent to pay the grocery bill. I must stick to the budget.

fishing for food
Bass caught in the Sandy River, breaded in cornmeal and pan fried, served on a bed of microgreens, with a slice of buttered sourdough bread.

Luckily this farm is well equipped to feed it’s farmer. Not only did Jim establish a 100-foot long garden, as well as other raised beds, he planted blueberries and raspberries. Long ago another farmer planted apple trees, and the land surrounding the farmhouse offers a diverse array of edible wild plants that are just waiting to be harvested. This land abounds with deer and game too, and fish in the Sandy River.

I get the distinct feeling that this land wants a farmer, a steward. Say what you will, but I believe that plants and animals have feelings too, that the energies of the universe have some effect on us, and that a collective habitat can give off a vibe which can be felt by those sensitive or empathetic to them. When I am exploring the surrounding fields and forests I feel welcome, and the land rewards me with gifts, trophies and edibles, resources and opportunities. It is up to me to find them, to make use of them, so that I can continue to live on the property and protect it for future generations.

So stay tuned folks! The season is underway and things are picking up!