Agricultural Tradeschool

For the last year and a half, we’ve been a practicing “agricultural tradeschool” here at Runamuk. We were already leaning towards a return to homeschooling before the onslaught of COVID-19. Then, when the virus swept the nation and children everywhere were suddenly home-bound. While some parents struggled with having their children home fulltime on an extended vacation, I saw it an opportunity on many levels. This is the story of how the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm became the center of an agricultural tradeschool for my son, BraeTek, what that looks like, how it works, and why it was the best thing that could have happened to our family.

Trouble at School

burns brothers
My 2 sons during our earlier homeschooling years. BraeTek (left), William (right).

Once upon a time, I homeschooled both my boys and enjoyed it very much indeed. My older son, William, was reading by the age of 3. My younger son, BraeTek (pronounced Bray-tek), was very a very active and talkative young boy, and did well at home too. At 7 though, BraeTek wanted to attend public school to make some friends. At that point, William’s autism was beginning to cause friction between the 2 boys, so we opted to allow BraeTek to join 2nd grade at the local public school.

That went well enough for a while, however, as the years went by, BraeTek seemed to struggle increasingly with the public school system. He had an innate sense of fairness, and was unable to sit idly by whenever he perceived some injustice at school. I would often get calls from school about his behavior, or some scuffle he’d been in.

BraeTek also wrestled with the pace inside the classroom. He just could not seem to keep up with the teacher, or with his peers. He was easily distracted, and struggled with handwriting. This all affected his self-esteem in a terrible way, and my spunky little boy became very down on himself as he entered adolescence.

The issues at school were escalating, with high school not far off. I knew I had to do something to help BraeTek. At that point, I toyed with the idea of returning to homeschooling with him. However, I was hesitant because of my workload as a solo-farmer. I worried that I would not be able to do justice to my son’s education.

Then covid hit, and like so many kids across the nation, BraeTek was suddenly home full-time. I saw what public schooling, and my own lack of hands-on involvement had done to my little boy. He was absorbed in his phone, wanting nothing more than to be online every moment of every day. His attitude was piss-poor, he was angry, irritable, and downright rude. Worst of all, he was lazy.

I’ve seen the same attitude, internet-obsession, and laziness in other teens and young adults today. I vowed then and there that my son was not going to grow up to be like that. And that was the beginning of some very big changes in my household.

Agricultural Tradeschool

I decided to combine schooling and farm-work to give my son a well-rounded education. I’ve dubbed it: “agricultural tradeschool”. BraeTek can learn at his own pace, study things that he is actually interested in, learn important life skills, and most importantly (in my opinion), learn to work. I can’t help feeling that just learning how to work, how to use his body and his hands, and developing a willingness to put in the time and effort, is going to be a huge asset for BraeTek.

Bringing in the hay 2020.

I invested in Holt’s Environmental Science text books, both the student and the teacher’s editions, but for the most part, I’m not using any formal curriculum. Instead, I track down free printable worksheets online for math and language arts. We use the community library for reading material, and watch documentaries together for history.

It’s easiest for me to coordinate schooling with my baking days, when I’m relegated to the kitchen anyway. Those days I am able to be close at hand to guide BraeTek’s learning, answering any questions that might crop up. We do school year-round, working on academics 2 or 3 days a week during in the winter months, and just 1 day a week during the summer. He gets an academic vacation during planting season, and gets holidays off entirely. It’s a flexible system, and works really well with our farming life.

Incentive

At first, BraeTek was fairly resistant to working and to learning under Mum’s tutelage. Like many other teenagers these days, my son would much rather spend his time alone in his room watching videos online. He dragged his feet everywhere he went, moving so slowly I would want to scream, lol. Even with the simplest of tasks he would complain that it was “too hard”, and he wouldn’t really try to work. There would be a big show of how “difficult” the project was, followed by some display of anger and aggression. This was mostly because he didn’t want to be bothered, but also because he just did not know how to use his hands or his body to do any kind of real work.

Learning to drive.

When it came to schoolwork, he would rush through the assignment so that his handwriting was illegible. I would get a snarky answer, or he would skip some questions entirely. There were some pretty big gaps in his education because he hadn’t been able to keep up in school. He’d just been passed along from one grade to the next, never really learning the basics. Because of this, he steadfastly clung to the idea that he was stupid and worthless.

We weren’t very far into the summer, when it occurred to me that BraeTek might work a little more willingly with some sort of incentive. He’s always been the entrepreneurial type, selling first lemonade and then dog biscuits beside me at the farmers’ market beginning at the age of 9. I offered him $5 a day, or $25 a week. Eagerly, he accepted the opportunity to earn his own money.

It’s a pittance, I know. I wish I could give him more. He is the only one receiving a paycheck here, however. Even $100 a month is a lot for Runamuk to finance at this stage in the farm’s development. For a 14 year old though, $100 a month is a decent chunk of change, and BraeTek is happy with the arrangement. He knows that if we work hard, he will get a raise when the farm is more financially solvent.

I’ve been able to use the promise of a paycheck to elicit better work effort from BraeTek on all levels. When we first made the deal, however, he seemed to be under the impression that the $25 a week was guaranteed regardless of how he worked or behaved. I had to explain to him that this is a lot of money for the farm. As the farmer, I have to be able to justify the expense. If he didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. If I got a piss-poor attitude, I had every right to suspend or fire him. If he broke equipment because he was cranky that he had to work, I would dock his pay to cover the cost of the repairs or replacements. This is the real world, and this is how it works.

Conversely, BraeTek also has the opportunity to earn bonuses. For going above and beyond what I’ve asked of him, I’ll slip him some extra cash. For doing exemplary work, he can earn some extra money. When a customer emailed to tell me how polite and helpful he was with them, I made sure to thank him and rewarded him with a bonus to his weekly paycheck. This incentive has made all the difference.

Transformation

Lambing season 2021.

As we’ve practiced this version of agricultural tradeschool over the course of the last year, I have seen a wonderful transformation in my son. There’s been a complete reversal in his attitude. His self-esteem has improved, along with his confidence. He’s developed a willingness to work, and strives to be productive every day. He learns new skills with an eye towards future independence. Best of all, working and learning together on the farm has greatly improved our relationship.

Does he want to be a farmer when he grows up? Lol, not at the moment, but he does see the benefit in learning the skills to be self-sufficient. Regardless of what his future might hold, BraeTek knows already that he wants to keep the house, and that’s something to build on. All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out. I am grateful to have such an opportunity with my son, and none of this would have been possible if I weren’t able to be here every day doing what I do best─farming.

Thank you for following along with the story of this #femalefarmer! It truly is my privilege to be able to live this life, serve my family and community, and to protect wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more stories from Runamuk Acres, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love, my friend!!

Confessions From a Female Farmer: Part 1 – Mom Issues

I confess to keeping secrets from you, my loyal readers and dedicated followers. This past year at Runamuk has been filled with some big changes for both farm and farmer. I’ve faced down some serious mom-issues, restructured my financial situation, and fallen in love with the man of my dreams. I took a long hiatus from writing, giving that energy to the farm and to my family. Waiting to see how events would play out before I dared validate them, I’ve kept my cards close to my chest. Now, as we slip deeper into the Dark Days of the Year, I am ready to write once more. I’m ready to continue for you the story of my journey as a female farmer in the western mountains of Maine.

Mom-Issues

the boys
My 2 handsome sons: BraeTek (left), William (right).

This part of the story is about the farmer who is also a mom. These are fairly personal issues and therefore harder to share publicly. Yet, I feel strongly that these are the issues steering the course of a farm─any farm─and things like this need to be acknowledged. Family is at the heart of farming. Ask any farmer why they are willing to work so hard for so little pay, and I’m willing to bet that he or she will tell you they do it for the lifestyle it provides their family. They do it for love. With that in mind, I confess that I’ve faced down some pretty challenging mom-issues this year.

William at 17

Early this past spring, my son William stopped coming to the farm for his regular weekly visits. Now 17, he had long since decided that he no longer needed a mom, he loathed going back and forth between two homes, and he preferred to reside full-time at his father’s. Finally my ex and I capitulated, and I was forced to accept that my baby was grown up and no longer needs his mom.

World’s Okayest Mom

I have long since accepted the title of “World’s Okayest Mom”. No where near the worst mom, but a far cry from the best. I used to think it was me─my own maternal failing. It took another mother to recognize the cards and point out to me that I’d been dealt a particularly challenging hand.

I have 2 sons, William and BraeTek, born 4 years apart. At the age of 3, William was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Now 17, William has been reevaluated and labeled level 2-autistic─meaning he needs support to be able to function within normal society.

william
William at 17

“Can you tell?”

Someone asked me recently if you could tell by looking at William if he was different, and I said yes. He is a handsome young man now. Tall and slender─like my father was─with the same dark hair. But it’s his mannerisms that set him apart instantly.

On a good day, William can be charming and engaging. He loves to tell stories and be the center of attention. He’s very dramatic, and will wait for just the right opportunity to play out some prank he’s been scheming. William loves to read and research, has an obsession with old comics like Garfield, TinTin, and Foxtrot. Quick-witted and smart, with a memory like an elephant. I love those days.

On a bad day, William can be surly, or grumpy, withdrawing from the world to the sanctity of his bedroom. He has a fairly rigid perception of the world (The World According to William) combined with a significant lack of tolerance and some impulse control issues. Thanks to his everlasting memory, he holds a grudge like no one’s business, and will sometimes fixate on an event or particular conversation from the past. On a really bad day, that combination can cause him to self-combust. He might even work himself into an angry tizzy in which he is a danger to himself, and to those around him.

William’s Wrath

me n my son
It’s getting hard to get my boys to take a pic with their dear old mum!

I admit that I have been a target for William’s wrath for years now, and his resentment toward me seemed to grow with every passing birthday. He resents the bees. He resents the farm. BraeTek is 13 now, and William still resents me for having a second child lol. He resents the divorce. Change is hard for him, and going back and forth between two homes upsets him. Most of the time he is even offended by my unconditional love (but maybe that’s more a teenager thing than an autism thing?).

I could write a full-length book about what it was like raising William and trying to raise a farm at the same time lol. Maybe some day I will…

Suffice it to say that William’s behavior escalated to the point where my ex and I could no longer deny his right to choose where and how he will live. Shortly after his 17th birthday William stopped coming to the farm every week. I was left blaming myself, questioning my priorities and my maternal capabilities.

I wonder─do all mothers and fathers feel that same sense of self-doubt when their children leave the nest? If you have any experiences or sage words of wisdom to share, please feel free to drop a comment below─or shoot me an email if it is too personal for you to share here.

Quiet House

William having fledged the nest was a rough adjustment, for sure. This big old house was a lot quieter with only BraeTek and I in it. Eventually, I worked through my feelings of inadequacy, putting into perspective the challenges that I had faced in raising my children. Though it still pains me, I accept that William is just more comfortable at his father’s. I can pick myself up and carry on, knowing that I have always done the best I could to do right by my children, while still being true to myself and my own dreams.

In the wake of that acceptance, I began to see a new opportunity to focus my maternal energy on my younger son, BraeTek.

Tradeschool for BraeTek

It was a long series of events, actually, that led me to induct my son into “Runamuk’s Tradeschool for Recalcitrant Teens”. BraeTek had been struggling at school for the last couple of years. He was having trouble keeping up in class, had fallen behind in math pretty significantly, and his handwriting was atrocious. He was depressed and lacked confidence, but played it off as indifference.

BraeTek_Summer 2020

He railed against what he perceived as injustices against himself or his friends amid the junior-high society, and I was being called into school frequently for one incident or another. In the face of these struggles and the stress of having an autistic brother at home, BraeTek had become resentful─withdrawing into internet media just as so many kids today are inclined to do.

Lazy

Then he started bragging about being lazy…. My son!

I was aghast. Lazy is the ultimate dirty word in my book. While I feel taking the occasional lazy-day is completely acceptable and sometimes necessary to recharge, lazy as a way of life makes me cringe violently.

child with pine cone
BraeTek at age 3

Maybe it is the active farmer inside me, or the naturalist closer tied to the land than to society, that cringes when she looks around to see so many people, young and old, lost to the cell-phone void. I see tomorrow’s generation of up and coming bright minds─seemingly with no clue of how to actually do anything. Young people with no motivation or work ethic to accomplish much in life─largely because they are completely and utterly addicted to their screens: tablets, computers, cell-phones, and video game boxes.

Then the covid pandemic set in, and kids everywhere were suddenly home fulltime. Though BraeTek had a few chores, there was so now much time in the day that he was spending hours upon hours in front of a screen─either his phone, a computer, or the TV. That just wasn’t acceptable to this mom.

A Valuable Opportunity

I decided this was a valuable opportunity to instill a sense of work ethic in my son. I offered him $25 a week, or $5 a day, to work for Runamuk Monday through Friday. Still in it’s infancy here in New Portland, the farm cannot afford to hire outside help. It can, however, afford $25 a week for an unskilled, underage apprentice.

BraeTek has always been something of an entrepreneur─motivated by money. At 9 years old, he was selling lemonade at the Madison Farmers’ Market. By 11 he had added homemade dog treats to his stand. Now he leapt at the chance to earn his own money by working for the farm.

BraeTek as my apprentice.

Over the course of the summer, I began to see how I might create an education for my son right here on the farm. I had homeschooled my kids before─William til he was 12, and BraeTek til he was 7. There was no reason I couldn’t pick that back up. I’d always enjoyed learning with the kids, exposing them to new things, and sharing my days with them. By the time school started up again this fall, my mind was made up. BraeTek would not be going back to public school.

Acclimating to Working Life

It was a little rough at first, as BraeTek acclimated to working life. He had a new routine, higher expectations, and increased responsibility. The money was great─$25 a week is a lot when you’re 13─but he learned pretty quickly that he would actually have to work for it and that mom has some pretty high standards. Runamuk is growing and gaining financially, but $25 a week adds up to $100 a month, and that is still a lot of money at this stage. As a farmer, I have to be able to justify that expense even if it is my son.

I’m excited, though, to have this opportunity with BraeTek. He needs to be able to work at his own pace, maybe with a little extra support, and a lot more physical activity. I can give that to him right here on the farm. What’s more, looking around at the masses of humanity zombified by their screens, effectively rendered useless to society, I can’t help feeling fairly passionately that learning to work, and developing a strong work ethic is going to be a huge asset for him.

Steered by “Mom”

I know that parenting is never easy, and perhaps letting go is the hardest part of the job. William fledging the nest was certainly a tough adjustment for this mom. Of course I will still see him from time to time, but he’s beyond needing me at this point. BraeTek on the other hand, will need me for at least a few more years, and I have big plans for him. It will be interesting to see the impact this young man will have on the farm─and how much of an impact the farm will have on him.

fresh carrots
William has always loved fresh veggies straight from mom’s garden!

In truth, Runamuk has always been steered by “Mom”─by the choices this farmer has made as a mom. Afterall, it was for my children that I ever started growing food in the first place. It was our family’s low-income situation that drove me to make my own, to DIY. Learning to bake and cook from scratch allowed me to stretch our grocery budget so that we could eat better. Now that we have settled in New Portland and the farm is really growing, I can’t wait to see how my children will steer Runamuk through the next phase of it’s journey.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest posts directly to your inbox; OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm.

NOT-going-back-to-school

My boys are happy to be able to stay home, and I am more than happy to oblige.

We’ve been discussing what they’d like to learn more about this year, things that we all need to work on to improve ourselves, and fun, new things we’d like to try.

That’s how we do things here–we explore things that fascinate us, pursue interests that we are curious about, and I always encourage my family to never stop trying to be the person they really want to be. Read more