Approved!

swinging bridge farm

Yesterday I received the news I have worked long and hard for. Nathan contacted me from Maine’s Pensobscot County Farm Service Agency to say that my loan request was approved by the state’s Farm Loan Manager. I can scarcely believe it!

Honestly I hadn’t expected to hear anything until later next week, so it came as quite a surprise when the email came through with the Notification of Loan Approval attached. I had to read Nathan’s words twice through, not daring to believe it at first lest I’d read it wrong, and even then I had to open the file and read the document entirely before I could accept that it was really real: my loan request has been approved! I’m buying the Swinging Bridge Farm!

At first I was so stunned that I was shaking. I couldn’t sit down, I had to stand up. I hugged Paul repeatedly, danced with Murphy, and bounced up and down; I was laughing and crying at the same time. After years of working toward this goal─to buy a property that would serve as my forever-farm home and become the pollinator conservation farm that I have envisioned since I began working with bees nearly 8 years ago─all of the struggle has finally been rewarded. I’m buying a farm!!!

Indeed, the FSA’s monstrous loan application and drawn out process has felt very much akin to a college final exam, upon which my degree depends upon. I did not attend college and am largely self-taught, but I feel I’ve earned that degree─or the equivalent of it─in the form of this loan approval. Did I mention I’m buying a farm???

We won’t actually close on the purchase for months, however. The FSA’s grueling process dictates that an appraisal of the property be done by an outside operative, which means the government offers the job to real estate appraisors across the state. The appraisors have something like 45 days to bid on the job, and once someone has been selected that person then has another 3 weeks or so to get the job done and turn in their report to the FSA.

They do this to ensure that the government isn’t paying too much for the property. The FSA won’t pay more than the value of the property, as these loans are funded with tax-payer money. This could mean that I might have to re-negotiate with the Seller if the FSA’s appraisal comes in lower than our current Sale Agreement, and that can sometimes be a sticking point. However, I’m fairly confident that I’m getting the Swinging Bridge Farm for a good price, and if the appraisal should come in lower than the $174,500 I’ve committed to, I have faith that the Seller will work with me to make my dream of farm-ownership come true.

In addition to the appraisal I need to have a number of inspections done on the house, including the chimney, electrical, plumbing and septic, and a water test. These I’ll have to pay for out of my own pocket before closing, but it makes good sense to have these things looked at to ensure the safety of not only my business, but my family as well.

swinging bridge farmTitle research needs to be done, and I need to have insurance in place before closing too. I’m pleased as punch that Ernie Hilton has agreed to do the legal work on this for me. Ernie and Gwen Hilton have supported my ambitions with Runamuk for years. My most valuable apiary is located on their farm in Starks, where bee-forage is prime and allows me to produce high quality honey. More recently the Hiltons hosted my FarmRaiser party in their historic barn. It seems fitting that Ernie should be the one to help me seal the deal on this farm-purchase.

We’re probably looking at closing (I’m estimating based on the information I’ve gleaned from Nathan during this whole process) in the late winter or early spring. I’m going to wager that it will be sometime around the Vernal Equinox─the first day of spring: March 20th. After that I’ll hold off on the “Great Farm Move: the Final Chapter” until after mud season. The house at the Swinging Bridge Farm is coming to me fully furnished, so I’ll use the time in between to organize the place, sort through the existing “stuff”, and define spaces and work stations within the house, the attached shed and barn, for Runamuk and for my family.

But there’s also the chance that we may not close til June. It all depends how how smoothly things progress. Whatever the wait, I know I have something to look forward to at the end of this road.

After living in tight quarters for the last year, with a full-sized bed in what should be the family room, my 2 boys sharing a room, and Runamuk crammed in around us─it will be a huge blessing, and a big advantage to have designated spaces once again. While I support the concept of tiny-homes, with my operation requiring accommodations for various oils, soap curing, product packaging, honey storage, farmers’ market supplies and writing materials─it’s challenging to fit it into a small space and coexist. My boys will value having their own rooms once more, and Runamuk will have the space it requires to thrive and grow.

OMG I’m buying a farm!!!

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Winter looming

amaranth

With the FSA’s monster loan application submitted for review, and the FarmRaiser party behind us, all focus has turned toward preparing for the winter looming ahead of us. The unseasonable warmth we’ve experienced so far this fall can be deceiving, but make no mistake─winter will come to Maine. When it does I intend to be ready.

Over the years I have adopted a series of personal deadlines for winter preparations. By the end of October I like to have my car winterized, housing tightened down, heating organized, livestock in their winter accommodations, and the majority of farm equipment put away. By Thanksgiving I want to have candy boards on the beehives, and any remaining farm or homestead equipment stowed away safe from snow and ice.

The Apiary

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

The unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing here in the northeast this fall is not great for bees. Bees do not hibernate through the winter. They cluster tightly together around their Queen, shivering their bodies and wings to generate heat as they revolve about her. They are awake and active inside their hives, but are not working nearly so hard as they do in the summer. As a result they consume much less food when it is cold. When the weather remains warm into the fall and winter the bees stay more active, eating up honey stores that would otherwise remain untouched til mid-winter.

In mid-September the fall honey harvest was taken off the hives. The bees continued to bring in nectar and pollen for another 2-3 weeks, finishing uncapped honey that will feed their colonies through the winter. Hives that were light on stores were given additional frames of honey, and fed 2:1 sugar-syrup using a top-feeder on the inner cover.

Mouse-guards and entrance reducers were installed early in September before the field mice began looking for winter dens. For a late-October mite treatment of oxalic acid (derived from the stinging nettle plant) I’ve scheduled to borrow a vaporizer from a beekeeping buddy. Then in November we will make candy-boards, and any white hives in my apiary will be wrapped with tar-paper before my Thanksgiving deadline. The darker painted hives and the unpainted wooden hives I no longer wrap in the winter.

Even with the unseasonable fall, it’s getting to be the time of year that beekeepers dread most. The colder months are hardest on bee colonies, and too cold to allow the beekeeper to work with them. Already we are shutting hives down. I am anxiously reviewing the season─did I do enough? How many of the colonies will survive? What could I have done better? Of course we won’t know til we’re on the other side of winter.

Garden

The garden is in a state of transition. The summer crops are mostly finished in our small homestead garden. We’ve harvested and eaten zucchini and yellow summer squash til it was coming out our ears. We had a harvest of green beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, a number of pie pumpkins, and a respectable crate-full of winter squashes of varying sizes.

amaranth
Paul grew Amaranth this year, which was new to me. The leafy greens reminded me of spinach and chard, and it grows well all summer─no bolting. I quickly fell for Amaranth!

It was interesting to see which crops thrived in the sandy soil, compared to those who only tolerated it and those that did altogether poorly. The carnival squash did exceptionally well in our dry, sandy soil and I got a half dozen of this variety grown to an impressive cantaloupe-size. While the butternut and acorn squashes produced a number of fruits, but all undersized for these varieties. My favorite winter sweet kubocha squash fared the worst, only producing 2 “miniature” squashes, one not bigger than a baseball.

This is where working part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds can sometimes yield unexpected blessings. I had the opportunity earlier this week to accompany a colleague to the Johnny’s research farm. Not once, but twice in 2 days!─I went to harvest produce for our office-bound co-workers. We harvested bushels of paste tomatoes and beautiful bright colored sweet peppers on Monday afternoon. Then on Tuesday afternoon we went to harvest winter squashes. Thanks to Johnny’s I scored an extra bushel of paste tomatoes, and 3 bushels of winter squashes.

Determined to continue to grow food into the fall and winter, I’ve sown 2 raised beds with cold-hardy crops sown using Johnny’s Fall Harvest Planting Calculator. Timing the sowing of crops for fall and winter harvest is particularly crucial, since they need to reach at least 75% maturity before the start of the Persephone Period (the point at which the day-length drops below 10 hours in duration).

In one bed I have beets, kale, bok choi, hakeuri turnips, radishes, and a couple of heads of lettuce. In the other I have lettuce mix, lots of tatsoi, radishes, spinach, and mizuna.

I was caught a little by surprise by our first frost. It was only thanks to a colleague’s warning on facebook that Paul and I were able to scurry out to the garden in the waning daylight to cover the beds I wanted to save. By the light of a headlamp we snatched the remainding tomatoes and peppers off the plants. Predictably the cucurbits, the nightshades and many other tender plants were wiped out first thing.

Since then, I’ve been preparing those 2 fall and winter-harvest beds for the next inevitable frost. Many commercial growers use the metal EMT-conduit and a simple bender to make hoops that span the bed and covered with agribon to create “low-tunnels”. Since I am no longer growing for market, but to feed myself and my family, I decided it wasn’t worth the expense of time and money to buy the EMT and borrow a bender to make a dozen hoops. I opted to use a tried-and-true method and went for 1/2-inch CPVC to make my hoops. The agribon I already have on hand; I just need to cut it to length so that I can quickly get it in place in the event of a frost advisory.

Note: This is a method I’ve used for years as a woman farmer. It’s easy enough that it requires little tool-skill, and durable enough that I’m still using the same equipment 5 years later. Check out “How to Build a Mini Hoop-House” for more details!

The Farm

At this point, the “farm” component of Runamuk is comprised of the laying flock of chickens that free-range the property I am currently leasing. Last fall we dramatically reduced the flock numbers in the face of the Great Farm Move. We went from about 90 birds to 40, and then lost another 9 birds during the winter to a series of hungry mink. I bought 10 layers in the spring, and then we received another 12 from the Magoons at Willow Lane Farm.

Since all of the birds are now 2-years or older and are significantly reduced in their production capacity, I’ve decided to send the majority of them to “Freezer Camp” rather than feed them and attempt to protect all of them from predators during the winter.

Older hens tend to be tougher meat, so I don’t sell them to customers, but cooked as stewing birds they feed my family just fine. We will keep 6 to 10 of the youngest, and the rest Paul and I will process sometime in the next couple of weeks. Used sparingly, this meat should feed us through the next year.

Early next spring I intend to purchase 50 started pullets to replenish the flock to have eggs available at the farmers’ market. We’ve decided to transition to non-GMO feed, using scratch grains available at Maine Grains in Skowhegan; it’s exciting for me to raise my birds on grain grown right here in the state.

Homestead

We’re facing another winter in this unfinished trailer. Even if the FSA will finance the Swinging Bridge Farm, the closing date won’t be scheduled til February or March due to the backlog that government office is facing. That means the Final Chapter of the Great Farm Move likely won’t happen til after mud season next year. I’m determined to make the best of things this winter.

changing of the cars
The “new” Forester on the left, and my retired Outback on the right.

Transportation: Experience has taught me the value of properly preparing my vehicle for the winter. Here in Maine we’ve been known to get snow in early November, and there’s nothing worse than driving in slick conditions in an unprepared vehicle. I like to have any major work to my vehicle taken care of well in advance of October, and good tires on the thing no later than Halloween.

Recently my trusted mechanic, Luke Vigneault (of Luke’s After Hours Auto Repair in Madison), pointed out the holes rusted through the frame of the Subaru Outback I’ve been driving for the last 2 and a half years. He had the old girl up on the lift and pointed a flashlight at the rocker panels, indicating how we could see clear through to the opposite side of his garage. He went on to show how I’d worn out the shocks and struts on every tire (that explains why she bounced all over the road so much lol!). So it was with some sadness that we have replaced the Outback with a Subaru Forester in better condition. All that’s left to do is to take my good snow tires off the Outback and put them on the Forester.

Heating & Housing: I like to have my winter heating squared away and the housing tightened up by the end of October too. Paul has been busy cutting firewood from the surrounding forest, and the woodstove has been cleaned and prepared for use. We bought a pop-up garage to store firewood in to keep it dry, and my 2 boys are collecting sticks and kindling into livestock feed bags to add to the stockpile.

There’s not much to be done for the old trailer we’re currently homesteading in; with plans to eventually move on, we’re reluctant to invest too much money in the old place. We’ll put plastic over the single-pane windows to retain more heat and stop drafts. Aside from that I am grateful for the roof that keeps us dry and the woodstove that will keep us warm this winter.

Preserving the Harvest: The majority of my homestead preparations revolve around food preservation. In such tight quarters I’ve had to get creative with storage─especially food storage. Potatoes, and onions, are stashed in cardboard boxes in the corners of the back bedroom where the kids sleep. This is the furthest space from the woodstove and we were able to keep vegetables this way into the depths of winter last year. The winter squashes are stowed under their dresser on the floor, and I’m pleased to have so many that they are spilling out into the middle of the floor there.

I am exceedingly grateful to have inherited a chest freezer from Jim Murphy, where I’ve found I can store a year’s supply of meat and vegetables. Tomatoes are in the process of becoming sauce, sealed into ziplock bags and put into the freezer. Green beans and most other vegetables have been blanched and stored in the freezer. Raspberries and blackberries we foraged from the surrounding woods are packaged and frozen. I sliced up peaches we scored a deal on through a colleague at Johnny’s who has a connection, froze them on a cookie sheet, then packaged and stored them in the freezer. Apples are next on the list, and once processed the chickens should fill the remaining space in the freezer. It’s a really good feeling to have so much food stored away for the winter.

Conclusion

Likely we won’t know the results of my efforts to secure the Swinging Bridge Farm until sometime around the New Year. Regardless of the outcome, I have a farm and family to take care of and winter looming on the horizon. I cannot sit idly by waiting for the verdict. The whole thing is out of my hands now. I’ve committed myself to the present, to winter preparations and to the upcoming holiday season, which is always good distraction. Soon there will be snow on the ground, and cozied up inside before the crackling woodstove there will be plenty of time to ponder the possibilities that next year might bring.

Thanks for following along with one woman’s journey as a beginning farmer! Stay tuned for more updates coming soon regarding my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm here in central Maine!

The great farm move

great farm move

Well we made it. Runamuk has arrived at Paul’s place in Norridgewock. These beginning farmers are now “trailersteading”. The official address is 26 Goodine Way, which is off of Ward Hill and still close to Madison and Anson where I vend and manage the farmers’ market, and where my kids attend school. It’s been one hell of an emotional roller coaster over the last couple of months, with the stress and anxiety only intensifying as moving day at Runamuk drew closer and closer.

building-supplies
Building materials for the new hoop-coop that I constructed for the laying flock.

It’s an overwhelming prospect to move a whole farm; not only does the farmer have an entire household and family to pack up and move, but also a myriad of tools and equipment between garage and barn, storage sheds and outbuildings. To make matters even more sticky, there’s equipment in use and  spread out across the acreage that needs to be pulled off, cleaned and packed up. Then there’s the pets and livestock who need accommodations at the new location to be in place before they can be moved, and who need careful planning and consideration for a transition that’s as smooth and stress-free to the animal as possible.

I have been out straight with packing and preparations, harvesting the garden, culling chickens to downsize the flock and constructing a new coop to house the rest of the birds. Meanwhile, Paul’s been working himself ragged to prepare his trailer for my arrival─staying alone in Norridgewock several nights a week, burning both ends of the candle so that he could get the electricity and plumbing installed before my entourage and I descended upon the place.

It’s really impressive the amount of work he’s put into this old trailer. Paul bought the 12×50 mobile home and the 40-something acres it sits on from his aunt about 6 years ago and proceeded to gut the old trailer. He’s reinforced the entire structure with 2×4 framing and a new floor. He replaced the insulation, rewired and replumbed the whole thing. He’s removed the oil-burning forced hot-air heating system and put in a new woodstove.

Even with all of these improvements and modifications it’s still little more than a well-insulated camper. None of it is pretty. It’s all purely functional, but Paul’s ugly-duckling property provides the long-term stability Runamuk and I need to gain ground and grow until I can find a piece of property that meets my vision for Runamuk’s forever-farm setting.

great farm move
No critter left behind; not even a lazy farm cat!

We moved the bulk of the household things on Friday, September 30th, and then made the official leap on Wednesday with Murphy, the 3 lazy farm cats and my 2 boys. The laying flock I moved over the course of Friday and Saturday nights, and the bunnies I’ll relocate tonight and tomorrow. There are still a few pieces of large equipment to move, some clean up to take care of in Starks and next week we’ll move the beehives.

It was barely 5am on Saturday morning when Phillip the rooster’s crowing pierced the still dark of early morning there at Goodine Way. I imagined him disturbing the neighbors who live close by and I smiled as I said to myself, “Runamuk is here.” The hardest part is over. The critters and I are settling into familiar routines at Paul’s place; soon I’ll have my feet under me and I’ll be off and running once more.

Stay tuned folks!