What Have I Been Doing All This Time?

Faithful readers to the Runamuk blog are probably wondering where I’ve been, and what have I been doing all this time, lol. Since I bought the farm, my writing has tapered off, gradually becoming non-existent. Even my presence on social media had significantly diminished. Now that I’m back, I invite you to get yourself a cuppa coffee or tea. Come join me on the farm for a few, to find out what’s been going on at Runamuk Acres.

As promised in last week’s post: “Back in the Saddle”, I am writing my weekly farm-update. As I vowed to you, and more importantly─to me─I have spent time writing every day. I religiously dragging myself out of bed at 4am to do so. Truthfully, though, I’ve been writing off and on all along. I even took part in National Novel Writing Month─or “NaNoWriMo” back in November, making a good start on a full-length novel that I’ve been wanting to write. It’s only the blog, and social media that I’ve largely avoided, keeping to myself for the last year or so. I’ve been hyper focused on my farm, my family, and living in the moment. I am all-consumed with cherishing the beauty and wonder of this life I am living. And counting my blessings, every day.

21st Century Relationship

I admit that I’ve coveted the farm and my newfound farm-life. Much like a toddler might covet a new toy, I did not want to share it with anyone. I also admit, I’ve been more than a little self-conscious of my relationship with Deron. More than one partner has made an appearance in my story, and to say “this one is different” is just too cliche. I am not willing to belittle the good thing this man and I have going on.

It took some time for me to wrap my head around this 21st Century relationship. It took even longer to let go of the vision I’d had in my head for what love and life “should” look like. To accept it for what it truly is. For someone like me, who fairly burns with her desire to achieve the innate, intangible vision of her dreams─to let go of that stubborn, steadfast mental picture of life, love, and hopes for the future, allowing it to transform and morph into something else─you know it would take something profound to compel me to allow those changes. That’s the love I’ve found with Deron. It’s full and rich, sweet and tender─it’s something special.

Yet, because we each have teenage children, we will continue to live separately til the last of our kids graduate high school and have flown the coop. That’s a few years down the road…

Farmer Mom

I cannot deny that it has been a challenge for me to accept this new version of Happily Ever After. Deron and I spend our weekends together at one house or the other. On Tuesdays, BraeTek and I join the Whittemores for supper. The rest of the week, it’s all about being “Farmer Mom”. A pretty overwhelming endeavor by yourself…

Surprisingly, I am doing okay. This has been an amazing opportunity for personal growth. I believe I have risen to the challenge. It was tough for a while, but Deron is definitely worth it. I think, I’ve finally adjusted. And, I am okay with it all. Go figure.

Deron helps out when he can─we make a great team, working well together. However, it is BraeTek, now 15 and taller than his mum, who has become my right-hand man on the farm. Taking him out of public school in favor of homeschooling was the best thing that could have happened to us both. To think, I might never have realized the opportunity I have with my son, if it weren’t for this path that Deron and I have chosen in our relationship.

If I hadn’t been willing to allow my own perceptions of what Happily Ever After should look like to change─if I had refused to grow and evolve─I would surely have given up the best love I’ve ever known, missed out on the opportunity for a better relationship with my son, and forfeited the chance to make a partner out of BraeTek. Thanks to that willingness to change, I’ve found a new purpose in life. I am now focused on building this farm up so I might someday turn it over to my son, in hopes that he might reap the benefit of my life’s labors.

What Have I Been Doing…?

To that end I have been working diligently this last year, growing this farm to increase our income from agriculture, building bridges between my family and Deron’s, always working toward a brighter future for us all. Check out this slideshow I put together featuring some of the highlights!

2021 Highlights

Wheels – 2020 was a year of car-troubles for Runamuk, which ultimately ended with this farmer stranded on the side of the road, even resorting to hitchhiking. I managed to barter a deal for an old pickup truck to get me by, but at the tail end of the year the farm received a generous $5000 donation to aid in the purchase of reliable transportation. If you haven’t heard that story, definitely check out “The Perfect Solstice Gift“. On January 4th of 2021, I was able to go to North Anson Auto, and paid cash for a used vehicle. With that, Runamuk welcomed yet another─slightly newer─Subaru Forester to the farm. A truck in disguise, lol.

Bolens Lawn Tractor – My dear, late Aunt Lucy was a steadfast supporter of my strange farming ambitions. It was she, who arranged for the transfer of a big, red Farmall tractor from her father in-law to myself. I dubbed the agricultural machine, Walter, after my late father, Dana Walter Richards, and clung to that piece of equipment like life-raft while I was l landless. Once I’d landed upon my forever-farm, we tried and tried to get the old thing to run─to no avail. That failing, coupled with the realization that the tractor really was just too big for the kind of work I’m doing, and Walter became more of a lawn-ornament. I couldn’t bring myself to even consider letting him go. It wasn’t until Deron’s father, David, pointed out that my Aunt would have wanted me to have something that worked for me rather than clinging to the Farmall out of some misguided sense of sentimentality. Parting with Walter was incredibly difficult, but it allowed Runamuk to invest in a smaller, yet equally rugged, Bolens lawn tractor─with a rototiller attachment. This machine is just the right size for my small farm, and for me. I think Aunt Lucy would be proud to see me sitting upon it, doing the work that I am meant to do.

Beebe the Brave, livestock guardian in-training.

Training Beebe – I knew going into it that bringing a livestock guardian to the farm was a big commitment on my part. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the challenges associated with one of these dogs. “Beebe the Brave” is a Central Asian Shepherd. Not only is she a beautiful animal─she is also highly intelligent, super territorial, incredibly sweet and affectionate, and hands-down the most difficult dog I have ever had the privilege of training. This is a post all on it’s own, and I will put it on my list of topics to cover in the not-too-distant future. For now, suffice it to say that last year was quite an ordeal. Things didn’t go exactly the way I’d imagined, but I wouldn’t trade Beebe for any other.

Note: “Beebe” is the name she came to us with at 5 months of age. We contemplated changing it, but when I looked it up, I found that it’s a french name, pronounced “Bee-Bee”, and is derived from a word that means: “the place where bees are kept”. Seemed all too fitting for the dog destined to guard Runamuk, founded on beekeeping.

Lambing Season – What’s not to love about adorable lambs? This is one of the farm’s most beautiful blessings, and I am utterly grateful to be able to experience it. New lambs to the farm mean prosperity. They mean that my farm is growing, it means I’ve done something right. Perversely, I appreciate the validation. All those years longing and yearning to farm, promising “I can do it! Just give me a chance!”, to finally be here doing the work and actually succeeding, is both a comfort and relief. We had 8 lambs born to Runamuk, last year. Mothers and babies all were healthy and strong, and though we did end up with 1 bottle baby, even that experience was a joy.

Maine Big Night – Last spring, Runamuk served as a host location for local citizen scientists for the Maine Big Night project. Amphibians are some of the most endangered groups on the planet. This project seeks to evaluate the impact roads are having on populations, so that recommendations can be made for more wildlife-friendly road designs. We also participated in the project, adopting a local vernal pool to observe for amphibian activity on the first potential Big Night of the season. Deron and I took our combined tribe of teenagers, even recruiting a handful of local volunteers to the cause, and went out on the first warm, rainy night of the season to survey amphibian migration. It is my intention that this will be an annual event for the farm.

Family Perennials – It has become a tradition since coming to this place, to honor my family with perennial food-plants (fruit trees, berry bushes, artichokes, etc.). I planted berry bushes for each of my boys, apple trees in memory of loved ones departed, and it was my pleasure last spring to plant fruits trees for each of Deron’s 3 younger children here on the farm. We put in 2 different varieties of apples for Chantel and Drake, and Ciarrah, Deron’s youngest, wanted a pear tree, which needed a friend for cross-pollination, so she got 2 trees lol. This year we will plant 3 more perennials─2 for Deron’s older 2 sons, grown with families of their own, and 1 for the new grandbaby in the family. I can’t wait!

Old Steve Rogers.

1st Ever Pigs! – To secure the pickup truck from old Steve Rogers, I bartered the use of a patch of earth for Steve to raise a few pigs, and a small section of the garden to grow a some vegetables for himself. I’d never had pigs before, and devoutly believed I never wanted them. Now that I’ve experienced it, I am converted, lol. I can see doing a few pigs every year, just to supply my farm-family with a higher quality pork. This year, Runamuk is offering Half and Whole-Hog pig shares to it’s CSA members.

Work Parties – Always loathe to ask for help, I’ve come to realize how imperative that big push of energy brought by a group of people all working together really is to the farm. Sometimes I put out a call for help to my community, other times it’s just the combined forces of mine and Deron’s families working together here for the sake of the farm that feeds us. It’s amazing the amount of work that can get done in a short amount of time. Last year, we did a Trail Maintenance work-party early in the spring, and an Irrigation Clean-Up party late in the fall.

One of our CSA members hard at work on Runamuk’s barn quilt!

Barn Quilt Workshop – Runamuk hosted Saskia Reinholt, and one of her many Barn Quilt Workshops last June. Some of our very own CSA members participated, painting a bee-themed quilt to adorn our own barn. The Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm is now listed on the Maine High Peak’s “Barn Quilt Trail”, a community-made public art trail celebrating rural traditions, and linking into the national American Barn Quilt Trail.

Irrigation Upgrade – While he was here on the farm, old Steve Rogers, a retired heating and plumbing specialist, tapped into the farmhouse’s main water line to establish irrigation to the field. Before, it was quite an ordeal to run that many hoses and maintain water pressure to irrigate the massive garden I am managing at Runamuk. Now, I have a series of spigots spaced out along the side of the garden, and a spigot at the end of the field for watering the livestock on pasture. What a huge difference it made in the efficacy of the drip tape-and-sprinker system I am using!

Firefly Festival – Runamuk hosted it’s 2nd annual Firefly Festival last July. The weather cooperated, and locals came to the farm to celebrate fireflies. We walked through Runamuk’s 10-acre hay field, learning more about fireflies, and watching for the flashing beetles. The kids managed to catch a few, and we made sure to releasing them when we were done. Afterwards, folks gathered around the campfire to discuss how the firefly came to be such an iconic part of childhood pasttimes, why they are now a species under threat, and what we can do to help this beneficial insect.

My brain-child.

The Fenceline – It got to the point where my solar chargers for the electric net fencing I use was no where near strong enough to contain my flock of sheep. I also had one very troublesome ewe, who insisted on sticking her head through the nets to eat the grass outside their pen─even when I’d literally just moved them to a fresh patch. It was maddening. No matter what I tried, I could not get that fence strong enough. Even after culling the problem ewe, I still woke up at 4:30 one morning to a “Maaaaaa” outside my window (several hundred yards from where the sheep were supposed to be constrained on the field). That was the last straw. In one Saturday, Deron and I erected a 600-foot long line of electric fencing down the middle of my 10-acre pasture. We pounded 60 fence-posts, attached 3 insulators to each post, and ran the wire til late into the night. It was a sudden stroke of genius that came to me in that moment of desperation─to run a line of electric wire fencing down the length of the field, and run my electric nets off of that. Now the sheep stay where I put them, and I am a much happier farmer, lol.

Hay Mission 2021 – With 10 sheep last winter, and 12 this year, Deron and I have taken to buying Runamuk’s hay right out of the field in the summer, saving both time and money. Thanks to my days as a landless farmer with honeybee apiaries strung out across the area, I’ve forged a longstanding relationship with Hyl-Tun Farm, who produces some very good quality hay. The tricky part is moving it from Hyl-Tun Farm, nearly 16 miles southeastwards in Starks, to Runamuk, in New Portland. Once on-site, the hay must then be hoisted up into the barn and stowed out of the elements for safe-keeping. Last summer we recruited our gaggle of teenagers to help, and they, in turn, roped a few extra friends into helping too. Deron and I shuttled the hay from one farm to the other, while the teenagers worked together to get the hay into the loft for me. We bought pizza, they played music too loudly, and had themselves a boisterous good time getting the work done on the farm.

Harvest Dinner – This was the 2nd annual Harvest Dinner put on for Runamuk’s CSA members. Deron and I may have gotten a little carried away with our menu. We’re both avid foodies with some skill in the kitchen, so when we set our minds to it, we really turn out some fantastic meals. We had twice as many guests this year as we did in our first year. I’m hoping that number doubles again in 2022.

Deron’s 1st-Ever Home!

Deron Bought a House! (and I helped!) – Like me, Deron had long burned with the dream of home-ownership. He had that same soulful need to have a place of his own, where he can be master of his own domain. Before he and I can move forward with a joint-venture, Deron needed to see that dream come to life. I put him in touch with the realtor I’d worked with to buy my farm, Leah J. Watkins, and she took it from there. I was by his side in September, when Deron closed on a beautiful home in Solon. I couldn’t be prouder to support this good, hardworking man as he continues to grow and evolve.

Community Compost – It’s become painfully apparent that the soil here is incredibly poor. Even with a robust flock of chickens, and a flock of sheep, Runamuk is not producing enough of it’s own manure to meet the demands of our gardens. Sourcing amendments in can be pricey, and we have few options in this part of the state for organic materials. On impulse, I decided to establish a community compost program, collecting compostable materials from local households and restaurants that I can compost into fertilizer to feed my gardens. Check out “Soils to Spoils” on our website to learn more about that program.

1st Lamb Harvest – With winter was on the doorstep, this farmer was painfully conscious of the fact that 350 bales for an entire Maine winter is only going to feed so many mouths. I had 16 sheep, and my ideal number to overwinter is about 10, give or take 1 or 2. After 3 years spent growing my sheep flock, it was finally time to take a harvest. This was a hard day on the farm, but a necessary part of farm-life. All of the meat went to feed the households of Runamuk’s CSA members, a ms well as my own family, which brought a depth of meaning to the sacrifice that soothes my aching heart. It’s not easy to say goodbye to beautiful, spunky animals you’ve raised and cared for, grown attached to, loved and worried over.

1st Grandbaby! – Deron’s oldest son, Spencer, together with his wife, Casey, welcomed their first child to the family in early November. New Grampie, Deron, is just a proud as a peacock. You can be sure we will be plating a tree here on the farm for that baby boy later this spring, and I can’t wait to introduce him to the sheep!

Christmas Gift – We rounded out the year with yet another generous donation to the farm. From a local benefactor who wished to remain anonymous to the public, came not one─but 2 Christmas gifts. The first was $400 to put toward Runamuk’s CSA program, and the second was a brand new Stihl chainsaw. All we had to do was drive over to Aubuchon Hardware in Farmington to pick it up, along with a few miscellaneous items for upkeep of the new tool. We put the chainsaw to the test by using it to cut down our Christmas and Solstice trees for each of our houses. She works beautifully!

That’s What I’ve Been Doing

There you have it in a nut-shell, my friends! Since I last updated the farm-blog last June, that’s what I’ve been doing with my time. Of course, let’s not forget the hours and hours spent toiling in the garden, mucking livestock pens, moving sheep around the field, morning and afternoon critter-chores, and all of the lovely Friday and Sunday suppers I joined Deron for at his father’s home. Oh─did I mention the countless times the sheep escaped and this farmer chased them back and forth across the property before we finally got a handle on the situation??? Did I mention that!?

Lol, I think I did.

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

State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

Beekeeping in today’s modern environment is probably one of the hardest forms of agriculture that exists. If you can think of a worse one, by all means leave a comment below to share with us lol. Meanwhile, the 2017-2018 winter was another rough winter for beekeepers here in Maine; many beekeepers lost a lot of hives─myself included. At first, with so much riding on the apiary I was afraid to tell anyone, but the fallout from those losses has not been as bad as I had feared and so I bring to you now a sort of “State of the Apiary Address”.

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

Over the course of the winter this year I went from 21 hives to 1. After working so diligently to build my apiary last summer it was a huge disappointment that led me once again to question myself, my abilities, and my path as a farmer. What’s more, with my impending mortgage largely dependent on the success of my apiary, I was terrified that the losses would put an end to my farm-purchase. Both Runamuk and my family desperately need a home to call their own; my days as a landless-farmer have run their course and it is now taking a toll on us all. What would happen if the FSA knew I’d lost 20 hives?

I wasn’t the only one who experienced significant hive-losses, however. The brutal cold Maine experienced in late-December and early-January tested even the strongest hives and beekeepers across the state suffered losses.

Note: For more about the impact of the 2017-2018 winter on Maine bees, check out “It’s been a rough winter for bees” from the Bangor Daily News, written by Peter Cowin─Maine’s own “Bee-Whisperer”.

Telling the FSA

Word of the impacts of the winter on the beekeeping industry eventually reached the USDA and FSA offices and I got an email from Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent who has been handling my loan, asking how I’d made out.

Honestly, there was a moment of utter panic. I was so terrified that if I told him the truth I would lose my chance to buy a farm and secure a home for my family. But I’ve made honesty and transparency a policy in my life, and not telling Nathan the truth was not something I wanted on my conscience─though I admit it totally crossed my mind.

If I’m going to have a relationship with the people at the FSA for the foreseeable future, I want that relationship to be a good one. So far the people I’ve worked with at the government office have only ever tried to help me. They have these resources available to help farmers and they want to do just that─help farmers; even if they are required to abide by the regulations and stipulations mandated by our bureaucratic government.

Besides that─if other beekeepers were sharing stories of loss and I came out with none, how would that look?

When I initially submitted my application and business plan to the FSA back in September, I had included for them a brief report on the nature of beekeeping. It is not common for a farmer to specialize in bees, and I wanted to help educate the FSA staff so that they would understand how a beekeeper can grow their apiary fairly rapidly just by making splits and nucs, and by raising their own Queens, which I am learning to do. I wanted the USDA representatives handling my case to realize that-yes, annual mortality of hives may be high─between 30% and 37% depending on the statistic─but the nature of beekeeping allows savvy beekeepers to rebound from annual losses and still continue to have hives and grow a business.

Once the shock regarding the severity of Runamuk’s winter losses wore off I had devised a plan to recover the apiary. I ordered a combination of packages for honey production, nucleaus colonies for kick-starting my breeding operation, and a dozen Saskatraz queens (Bred in Saskatchewan!!! Should be hardy in Maine, right?). And I still intended to produce at least 20 viable Queens to overwinter as nucleus colonies.

Even with this strategy under my cap, and knowing that I had good people on my side at the FSA, and even knowing that those people had accepted the education I’d offered and had even taken it upon themselves to learn more so as to be best able to help me─I had to have supplemental encouragement from some good friends before I could respond to Nathan’s email about my winter-losses.

I admitted that I was down to 1 hive, and presented my plan for recovery. My heart was in my throat when I hit the send button on that email, and I awaited Nathan’s response in a state of hyper-anxiety─fearing the worst.

Lol, I needn’t have worried. Nathan accepted the facts and was confident that with my strategy the Runamuk apiary would recover and go on to meet the goals I’d projected in my business financials. He merely suggested that I apply for the ELAP program for reimbursement of those hive-losses.

The ELAP Program

usda_somerset county
USDA Service Center for Somerset County, located in Skowhegan, Maine.

The ELAP program─or “Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish”─provides emergency assistance to eligible producers for losses due to disease, weather, and wildfire. It turns out that the severe and prolonged cold spell Maine experienced in December and January qualified beekeepers for reimbursement of hives lost as a result.

So I went to see Scott Speck at the Somerset County USDA office, who is the County Executive Director. At this point I’d met everyone in the office but Scott, so now I am fully acquainted with my local USDA/FSA staff─yaaay! Scott gave me the details on the program, we filled out the application and he sent me off with some homework.

Note: For more information on the ELAP program, check out the USDA’s ELAP Fact Sheet.

To qualify for the ELAP assistance I needed to be able to show some record of the existence of said hives─which was easy to do since Nathan had documented and photographed those same hives last fall for the purpose of my farm-loan. But I also needed to have my hives inspected by the Maine State Apiarist: Jennifer Lund, to ensure that “Best Management Practices” had been followed and that the cause of death was actually due to the severe weather conditions.

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

In my nearly 10 years keeping bees I had never once had the state apiarist come to my apiary. Thanks to my volunteer work as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers (formerly), I was involved enough to know what sort of issues were facing the majority of  Maine’s beekeeping community. Any additional problems I encountered I’ve been able to turn to a variety of more experienced beekeepers with whom I am acquainted, so having the state apiarist come solve my problems was never really necessary.

Again I was filled with anxiety─I knew I’d been following the “Best Management Practices” as laid out by the Maine Department of Agriculture, but what if I’d missed something? What if my timing had been off in applying the oxalic acid? Maybe I should have treated just one more time? I didn’t think I’d taken too much honey from the hives, but what if I was wrong? And what if Nathan had suggested the ELAP program as a justifiable means of having my operation assessed before the FSA committed the funds to my farm purchase???

I needn’t have worried; everything turned out fine.

Jennifer Lund met me at the Runamuk apiary located at Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks on a dreary grey day and we proceeded to go through the dead-outs on-site there. Jennifer is probably about my age; she studied at the University of Maine alongside Frank Drummond─one of the leading scientists performing research on native bee populations for the USDA. When Maine’s veteran State Apiarist, Tony Jadczak retired a couple years back, Jennifer applied for the job and got it.

Since she’d been awarded the position I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out why her name rang a bell in my head. We chatted as we surveyed my deceased colonies, and it turned out I had invited Jennifer to come to speak to the Somerset Beekeepers years ago! Mystery solved!

Jennifer checked my dead-outs to see the size of the cluster and their position within the hive, the amount of honey and pollen stores in the hives, along with signs of disease and mite levels among the population of bees. An alcohol-wash sampling revealed that mite levels were within reasonable range, and Jennifer concluded that in a normal winter even the weaker of my colonies likely would have survived. Cause of death was attributed to the weather conditions we’d experienced this year, and I was validated as a beekeeper.

With so many losses each winter it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it right, and whether it’s worth the hassle and heartache. Jennifer put my mind at ease, and my ELAP application is moving forward at the FSA. I should receive a check towards the end of the season, which I intend to use to reimburse myself for some of the replacement bees I purchased this spring.

It’s Bee Season!

back of a beekeeper's car
Some of my favorite days are when the back of my car looks like this!

The season is well underway now. Runamuk’s replacement bees came in several waves: I picked up the first 5 packages on May 12th from Peter Cowin in Hampden, then went back on the 29th for another 5 packages. These will be my honey-producing hives, since the southern bred Italian packages tend to rev up fairly quickly they will ensure that I have honey available to sell and enable me to meet my financial targets.

On June 8th I fetched 3 nucleus colonies from Bob Egan’s Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, Maine. I’d had 5 on order with Bob, but as a result of the harsh winter Bob was low on numbers. Having suffered significant losses myself I couldn’t hold that against the veteran beekeeper─we’re all in this together really. Bob raises a gentle strain of Carnolian bees that I’ve always had good luck with, and whose genetics I want as part of my breeding stock.

The 12 Saskatraz Queens are coming again from Hampden and Peter Cowin. They’ll be mated and ready to start laying when I bring them home the first week of July; the plan is to pair each Queen with 1 frame of brood taken from the existing hives and place them in a nucleus box with 1 frame of empty comb, and at least 1 frame of honey/pollen stores.

I’ll have to manage them fairly fastidiously so that I can overwinter them as nucs, so I’ve delayed pick-up of the new Queens til I can set them up at the new farm where I’ll be able to check on them more frequently. Ultimately, I’d like to have all the nucs and Queen-production happening at the Hive-House, while honey production will continue to happen at Hyl-Tun Farm where the Runamuk hives have miles of prime bee-forage in every direction.

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

The end-goal I have for the Runamuk Apiary is to make the operation sustainable for the long-term viability of my farm. Though I have supporting ventures diversifying Runamuk, bees are the main focus of my farm-business and to truly be successful over the upcoming years I need to reduce inputs and expenses while continuing to expand the apiary.

To do that I need to be able to raise my own Queens and overwinter them as nucleus colonies that can replace the inevitable annual losses. Once I can ensure the continued survival of my own apiary, I can start selling nucs and mated-Queens raised from hardy Maine stock to local beekeepers.

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

When I look back on the journey of my life I can’t help but marvel at the path that’s led me to this place in time. I did not set out to be the person I am today: female farmer, lady beekeeper, blogger, local food activist… I did see myself as becoming some sort of environmental activist however, and really everything I am stems from my love for the Earth and nature.

That love, along with a more recent commitment to be true to who I am and owning my story, has brought me here─doing work I love to do and paying my bills that way, on the precipice of purchasing my very own #foreverfarm and looking forward to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation farm to life.

Yes, beekeeping is hard, and I’ll never be well-off as a farmer, but when I open a hive and the fragrance of warm beeswax and honey washes over me─or when I’m on my knees in the garden surrounded by plants and insects under the bright sun─I am filled with gratitude that I am able to live a life I love─one which brings meaning and purpose to my existence. Now that I’ve tasted this kind of wholehearted living, I could never give it up.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to share any thoughts, questions or comments below!

Negotiations

mushrooms on an apple tree

If you’ve been anxiously awaiting news regarding my bid for the Swinging Bridge Farm, then I am glad for the company. It has been a long week of negotiations and I had hoped to be able to post with cause for celebration, but as of this moment I cannot say if my offer will be accepted by the landowner.

swinging bridge farm old farmhouse
The Swinging Bridge Farm!

The Offer(s)

The initial offer went out on Monday night for the old cape, the 103 acres it sits on, and the adjoining 49 acres that sit across the road. Leah Watkins, my realtor, suggested I write  a Love Letter for the property to accompany my offer, and as you can imagine I poured myself into that piece of writing in hopes of swaying the landowner to work with me.

Admittedly I went in low, thinking of it as the start of a negotiation process. Paul and I discussed it extensively. We considered the fact that this is not prime farmland─or even prime land for development─given that it is so super rocky. The terrain there is also difficult, being largely uphill on the house side, and on the opposite side of the road the land drops down into a gorge where the little stream that runs through the land spreads out to create a marshy wetland. The house itself is in need of modern updates like windows and doors, a chimney liner, and the roof may or may not be leaking. We offered $132.5K on the first go-round.

It was 36+/- hours of suspense to learn the landowner’s response to our offer. She came back with $183.5K, offering to contribute $4,500 towards closing costs and a promise not to harvest any timber between now and closing. A recent appraisal estimated the value of the property at $179K.

Initially my goal had been to keep my mortgage between $100K and $150K. I’d prefer to keep my debt as low as possible so that I can afford to farm full-time. I’m also very conscious of the fact that if the landowner accepts my offer, I still have to convince the FSA that my business proposal is worth taking a risk on. The more money I ask for, the less likely I am to qualify for financing.

Conferring with Leah, we decided to drop the parcel across the road and made an offer of $142.4K for just the house and the 100-acres it sits on.

Another 36 or so hours passed before we received the landowner’s response. They decided they did not want to split the properties up at this time, and offered the entire 150-acres and the house at $173.5K, with $4500 towards closing costs, but asked for more details regarding when we would know whether or not we qualify for the FSA financing.

The USDA’s FSA process is definitely a little confusing. It’s a little backwards. They don’t have a pre-qualification for financing; the farmer has to already have a sale agreement in place before they apply. There is a whole list of documents the farmer must submit, including a business plan, tax documents, cash flow projections, and so much more. It can take 10-45 days to receive a letter of qualification, and there is a backlog within the USDA so the expected wait for closing on a loan with them is currently projected at 5 months.

Leah sent back a detailed explanation of the process involved with USDA financing and why it takes so long. Ultimately I decided that if the landowner will work with my timeline, then I would meet her price for the entire package.

Now I await final confirmation. The suspense is excruciating.

What if this falls through?

mushrooms on an old apple treeI know full well that it’s not the end of the road if this landowner decides that the FSA timeline is too long a wait to close on the sale of the property. If this falls through I will simply continue searching and try again at the next available opportunity. Afterall, the original plan had been to apply with the FSA next March in 2018. I wonder, though, how long it would take me to find another landowner in a position to even consider my timeline; most cannot afford to.

Even with the price being a little higher than I’d intended, $173.5K is still a good number for 150 acres, with livable housing for my kids─in the school district─and near to the community I’ve cultivated through the Madison Farmers’ Market. There are currently 3 other properties available within my target area, which would serve Runamuk well─with actual farm-land and more comfortable housing. However, those properties are priced between $279K and $394K with between 50 and 90 acres, and ultimately they are out of my reach.

It’s the fact that this property is not prime farmland and the run-down, somewhat neglected condition of the house that makes the Swinging Bridge Farm a possibility for me. And especially the landowner’s initial willingness to work with my timeline.

Is it really suitable for pollinators?

Interestingly enough, the Maine Farmland Trust does not consider it farmland at all. We’d been in contact with Nina Young there in hopes of acquiring an easement for the property, but there is very little open land or farmland soils to qualify it for protection. Staff at MFT met to evaluate the potential for an easement project at the Swinging Bridge Farm, determined this property ineligible, and then questioned the property’s suitability for Runamuk at all. In her email, Nina asked:

Is a property with so little open land a good place for pollinators? Can they survive/make honey on forested land alone? Has Sam actually determined how much open land would be ideal for her bees? Maybe this just isn’t the right property to make her plan work?

Compromise

It’s true that I had hoped to find a property with 10 or 20 acres of established pasture where I could cultivate prime bee forage and then maintain it with bee-friendly mowing practices. I had also hoped to have a view of the mountains I love so much. I went into this knowing that there would be compromises along the way. I’ve accepted my position as a beginning farmer, and the ramifications that come with the financial situation that puts me in.

Thank goodness I was called to beekeeping. I have no shortage of offers for apiary sites from locals throughout the community, and indeed, the currant location of the Runamuk apiary at the Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks is a prime spot amid miles of carefully maintained hay pastures.

Bees will travel up to 3 miles from their hives in search of food, so when I am looking at a potential farm property for Runamuk I’m looking at the landscape within a 3 mile radius of the apiary site using Google Earth. New Portland has a deep-seated agricultural community, and there are many old orchards tucked away in the hills, as well as broad pastures that are still hayed every summer. What’s more, there are actually a lot of trees that provide prime forage for pollinators. I’m confident this site will prove to be a good place for my bees, and for the native pollinators that I hope to encourage as well.

If everything goes through and we find ourselves stewards at the Swinging Bridge Farm, Paul and I would work together over the next few years to open up about 10 acres for gardens and pastures. The bulk of the forest would be maintained as mature growth to preserve the wildlife that lives there.

My best shot

Given that I have been searching for a property in my area and price range for years, and that this landowner is willing to work with me and my FSA-timeline I intend to give it my best shot. I see a big opportunity for Runamuk there.

Please consider donating to the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme campaign to help raise funds for the Runamuk Pollinator Conservation Farm! Even $5 goes a long way in bringing us closer to our goal! Check back soon for more updates on our progress!

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!

FarmRaiser Party! Beekeeping, dinner & music!

barn party

Come to the Runamuk apiary on October 1st for a crash course in beekeeping and stay for dinner and live music at the historic Hilton barn in Starks! As part of the Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm gofundme campaign, I’ve organized this 2-part event that I’m really excited to share.

Beekeeping 101

beekeeping 101Sign up early to participate in my Beekeeping 101 workshop which begins at 9am on Sunday, October 1st. The course will cover the basics of getting started with bees in Maine, including where to get bees, apiary location, how to set up your equipment, installing the bees, pests & diseases, and overwintering your bees─among other things. Weather and temperatures permitting we may crack open a hive for some hands-on experience.

I have permission to use the Hilton’s barn for this event, so the workshop will take place rain or shine. Coffee, tea, and refreshments will be provided, but participants should bring a bag lunch of their own.  This is a 5 or 6 hour course and participants will take a beekeeping guide book home with them and numerous handouts.

The course is one of the perks I’m offering in the upcoming Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign with a $150 donation, however I’m offering a 11% discount on Early Bird registration RIGHT NOW. Sign up to participate for just $75!!! You may have two adult members from the same household for this price, requires confirmation of address and a book is shared.




FarmRaiser Party!

Runamuk’s supporters, friends and family are all invited to come to the Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks for a pot-luck dinner and live music! From 5-8 join us in the historic Hilton barn for the Runamuk FarmRaiser Party and celebrate with me all that Runamuk has achieved thus far, and all that we will attain in the future. A celebration of life, love, and community that you won’t want to miss.

farmraiser flyerI’m hoping to have a contradance, but I’m still working to nail that down. At the very least I know we will have some great live music, plenty good food, adult beverages (as well as family-friendly drinks of course), good company and a great setting. It’s sure to be a good time for the whole family.

VIP Passes: Here’s another great campaign perk I’m revealing early: VIP Passes to the Runamuk FarmRaiser Party! Except in this case, VIP stand for Very Important Pollinator. VIP guests will be seated at an exclusive table and served by yours truly, plied with wine or beer or whatever your beverage of choice is, and honored as revered supporters to the Runamuk cause. Receive a tour of the apiary, the Hilton’s conservation pasture, and gain exclusive “backstage access” to the evening’s musicians. These VIP Passes won’t be available until the campaign goes live, but a pair of passes can be yours with a $250 donation. Come be my guest, let me shower you with love and appreciation!!!

On-Going Campaign Prep

As you can see, I’ve been busy preparing for the upcoming crowdfunding campaign. I’ve put together what I think are some great gifts to give in exchange for donations, I’ve got a list of online promotion and another of offline promotion to work through, a video still to make, and the actual campaign launching on September 1st. And all this in addition to my regularly scheduled duties. Yes it’s hectic, but I’m confident it will all be worth it in the end.

I’ve put together a jam-packed campaign Media Kit that includes the official press release for the campaign, a full-length article, campaign highlights, social media images, flyers, and high res images. Anyone interested in helping to promote the Runamuk FarmRaiser can access the Media Kit by emailing me directly. Aslo feel free to email me for collaboration; I welcome any and all support!

Already I’ve been passing out flyers at the farmers’ market, posting them about the local community, and sharing the news of the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign─and our upcoming party! I’m really excited; however much we raise is going to be a help when we finally go to the FSA next March to begin the long process for financing our forever-farm home. I’m just glad I get to share the journey with so many wonderful friends.

Thanks for following along! Stay tuned for more from Runamuk!

Thankful for friendship and love

maine maple sunday at jss

While my journey as a beginning farmer has been filled with many ups and downs, Runamuk has somehow persisted─at times this has been due to my own stubborn pride, but more often than not it can be attributed to the friendship and love of those who have supported my ambitions along the way. I cannot go any further into the story of Runamuk before acknowledging these people and sharing my gratitude for their continued encouragement.

A little backstory

fun in the mud
We have always had lots of fun playing in nature!

When I was in my mid-twenties and my children were still babies, we lived in the woods with no neighbors to speak of─just acres and acres of unending Maine forest. I loved living there even though we had no plumbing, and conditions were less than ideal. I spent my days in the garden or exploring the forest toting my babies in a red radio flyer wagon─the kind with the fat all-terrain tires. After a traumatic childhood this was my healing time. I became close to the land, to the trees, and I came to know the Earth with her ebb and flow of the seasons in an intimate way. Nature has always been a balm to my soul.

exploring the forest with the boysAt the time I was struggling in an unhappy marriage, raising and homeschooling my children largely on my own, with little support from family and far removed from the few friends I did have. When my eldest son was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 3 it seemed to seal my fate. For the next 10 years I would attempt to connect with other moms in hopes of sparking new friendships for me and my boys, but none seemed to take. Sometimes there would be incidents with my son and we would not be invited back. Sometimes the other moms and I were just too different─not everyone is passionate about recycling, boycotting Walmart, or making their own ketchup─go figure. Sometimes religious preferences got in the way.

My mother-in-law told me once that I was─as she called it─woods queer; from spending too much time in the woods by myself.

child with pine coneIt wasn’t until I established Runamuk and began volunteering my time in my community that I finally began to connect with people like me. People who love being outdoors, who don’t want chemicals in their body products or preservatives in their bread─people who want locally produced foods and products, who care about their home-town communities, local agriculture, and saving the Earth from pollution. Through my work I have grown a diverse garden of friendships that fill me with joy.

Today I’m calling out a few of these friends and loved ones who have been instrumental in Runamuk’s progress, these are the people who lift me up when I am down, who offer sage advice as only a real friend will, friends who want to see me and Runamuk succeed and who have made a bigger impact on my life then they could ever know.

My Sister & Late Father

dad with his grandsons
My Dad loved his family with everything he had. Here he is with his grandsons.

Not everyone is so fortunate as to have the love and support of their family when undertaking a career in beekeeping. I’m sure there have been many times when my ideas and ideals caused them to look twice, but my sister, Marie Richards, and our dear late father, Dana Richards, have always supported my pursuit of a life in farming.

When the boys were young, Marie was my go-to babysitter. She has been my moral support and partner in nerdiness for years. My father, would have given the shirt off his back if he thought it would make a difference in my life. Their unconditional love has gotten me through many tough times and I love them for it.

Friends at Market

friends at market
Bringing the ability to accept EBT at our farmers’ market was a huge accomplishment to all of us.

Since establishing the Madison Farmers’ Market my circle of close friends has grown to include my fellow vendors. I know not all markets are so fortunate as we are in Madison, to have such a vibrant group of farmers and gardeners dedicated to local food and to community. People come to our market not only for the fresh, local foods and products we’re offering, but also to chat and check in.

Many in our group spend time together apart from market; we’ve become a close-knit group of friends. Together we’ve inspired this wonderful sense of community in Madison that I am incredibly proud of, but which wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for these other farmers joining me every Saturday morning rain or shine. We’re all of us committed to the market─to supporting each other─and that comes across to our customers in the best possible way.

Maria Reynolds of Yellow Place Bakehouse in Solon and Sonia Acevedo of Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison are 2 of my closest peeps. Crymson Sullivan of Sidehill Farm together with his partner Jessica Paul, Pete & Carol Vigneault and their son Luke (who is not a market vendor, but instead my mechanic and beekeeping buddy who makes it a point to stop by the market every Saturday)─these friends have been there through all my ups and downs. They were there with hugs and support when I was at my lowest, and they celebrate my successes with me.

There are also individuals from the community who make it a point to stop by the market to check in, even if they don’t necessarily need anything. Alice Arsenault, Marilyn from Skowhegan Savings, Mark the college professor, Lloyd Cowan, Chelsea Merry who is a deputy sherrif for Somerset County─people whose names I have not yet managed to retain─and so many more.

For these friendships I am so thankful.

Friends at Johnny’s

I began working at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in January of 2015, following my divorce. It was my first job off the farm since having kids─I was still reeling from the divorce, coming to terms with not having my kids with me 24/7 and the office environment was quite a shock to my system. Yet the people I met at Johnny’s and the connections I’ve made there have bolstered me─and Runamuk. When I am down these friends lift me up. When I am struggling they offer help, advice, wisdom, or even just a hug and words of encouragement.

Thank you to Kamala and Ken Hahn for being my friends─Kamala is the best kind of friend you could want: knowledgeable, worldly and sophisticated, opinionated and direct. She always tells it like it is and I know when I go to her she will tell me─not necessarily what I want to hear, but what I need to hear. Her husband Ken is much the same, and he’s teaching me to play the banjo! Yay!!!

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Jason Albert, Rebecca Jude, and Erin Reardon have been so good to me too. Always ready to lend an ear, a smile or to offer up a story. Paul Gallione even gave me his old banjo, the one Ken is teaching me to play─and there are many more people at Johnny’s whom I work with and who have shown me only kindness and support. These people have given me the kind of warm friendship that I had longed for all those years alone in the woods. Words just can’t express what it means to me to have each and every one of these people in my life.

The Hiltons

gwen and ernie hilton
Gwen and Ernie Hilton have long been Runamuk’s most dedicated supporters, and my caring friends.

Even before my divorce, Ernie and Gwen Hilton of Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks have been Runamuk’s staunchest of allies. Ernie is a lawyer and civil engineer with his office located in Madison, while Gwen is a municipal planner and a grant writer; together they manage the farm where the bulk of Runamuk’s apiary is currently located. These folks have long been a source of inspiration to me: involved in their local community as well as a couple of county organizations, engaged in the political process, and concerned about the environment too.

Ernie and Gwen have provided space in one of their hay fields for my hives for the last 5 years, but they’ve also provided cement blocks and boards for my benches, legal counsel, financial guidance, farming advice. To top it all off they mow using agricultural conservation practices that not only benefit bees and pollinators, but preserves the Bobolink habitat in their pastures too.

When rumors of a local bear causing problems for homeowners in Starks reached Ernie and Gwen, they took it upon themselves to erect an electric fence to protect the apiary. Because the apiary is in a pasture across the road from their farmhouse and barns, that involved running high tensile fence-wire through a culvert that runs under Route 43. Ernie crawled through that pipe in the muck and spiderwebs, and who knows what else, to run the wire from one side of the road to the other. And he did this on Father’s Day of all days.

bear fencing at apiary
New bear fencing at the Runamuk Apiary courtesy of the Hiltons.

A couple of years ago I had a mean and nasty goose to slaughter, and wouldn’t you know─it was Ernie and Gwen who came to lend a hand (he was too big and mean for me to tackle alone!). I served that darned goose for Christmas dinner. Then, last year when I was in the throes of the Great Farm Move, the Hiltons came to my rescue once again when I was faced with downsizing my flock of laying hens. Not only did they pay me for 10 of the birds, but they helped me process them as well; we spent the better part of a day slaughtering chickens and processing them for our freezers. They even loaned me their horse trailer for moving, and then hauled the thing to Paul’s for me.

I could go on and on about Gwen and Ernie and all the ways they’ve helped Runamuk─how these two wonderful people have been there for me over the last decade, but it’s not what they’ve done that matters; it’s the fact that they’ve been there through it all.

Success

geese at h&gp
A family of geese at Hide & Go Peep Farm.

This past Sunday evening I went to a Bruce Springsteen cover show at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison. My friend Sonia was playing to raise funds for repairs to their fabulous old barn; once the barn had been used for dairy cows, now it houses a myriad of goats, rabbits, ducks and geese─and pigs too, in the winter.

The way the barn is laid out there’s an open expanse in the center, with the hay loft and the roof of the barn high above. This space is perfect for entertaining, and Sonia and her family periodically host events utilizing the barn. Holiday lights were strung up, with tapestries and quilts adorning the walls. There was a table with beverages and peanuts; and a motley assemblage of seating was set up for the audience.

Since this was a Bruce Springsteen cover-show guests were encouraged to dress as their favorite Bruce (I went in jeans and a white t-shirt with my denim jacket and won 2 costume awards!). The beer cooler was labeled “Bruce-skis”, and people really did dress up and get into it.

Sonia had canvased the surrounding towns with fliers, they told friends and family about the event, and spread the word at the farmers’ market too. She had a good turn out that evening, which included many of the vendors from our farmers’ market and even some of our dedicated patrons.

As I sat there watching my friend play─with her 3 year old son keeping time beside her─surrounded by so many friends and supporters, with the music of Bruce Springsteen filling me up inside, it truly felt as though everything I’ve worked for over the last 5 years had come to fruition. I have true friends in my life, and there is a sense of community that I have found which inspires me every day. These people─friends, family, acquaintances and patrons─have brought color to my life, light, love and purpose, and I feel that even if I never achieve my goal for a conservation farm─I have succeeded in every other way. I am truly blessed.

Thank you for following along with the story of one woman’s journey as a beginning farmer and beekeeper in Maine! Stay tuned for more great stories from Runamuk!

What’s next for Runamuk?

paul-smith-runamuk-apiary

It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the idea of walking away from Jim’s farm, and I fully admit that some days it’s still a struggle to accept defeat. As a beginning farmer, it’s already been a long journey with many twists and turns in the road, obstacles overcome and fears faced along the way, and this wayward traveler is weary. This farmer is ready to put down roots to begin the hard work of building a forever-farm, and these false-starts are discouraging.

Leaving Jim’s is not the end for Runamuk, I know this and I’m confident that I will persevere, but I am no longer confident in leasing land. Farms are different from other businesses in that they invest their money and time into the land itself. Farmers give their heart and soul to a piece of land, to see it flourish and provide a bounty. It can take years of soil-building, cultivating, reseeding pastures, managing forests, and nurturing the land to see a return on investments. Beginning farmers need long-term land-security in order to make the kinds of investments needed to be able to generate a stable income from the land.

So what comes next?

runamuk apiaryAs partners in business and in life, Paul and I have pooled resources. He happens to have a parcel of land on the Norridgewock side of Ward Hill that he bought from family several years ago. This property came with a older mobile home on-site that Paul gutted and he spent a great deal of time during his bachelorhood reinforcing it’s structure, replacing insulation and redoing electrical wiring (isn’t he handy!?).

We plan to use his property as a stepping-stone as we get finances in order and continue to grow the apiary. Half the apiary will remain at the Hyl-Tun Farm, which allows our production hives access to the superior forage the vast hay-fields of Starks offers, while the other half, along with the rest of the Runamuk operation and our household will move to Paul’s place.

It ain’t gonna be pretty, folks.

Nothing about this property screams “farm” or envokes an image of “conservation agriculture”. The trees and brambles have grown up over the hills and gullies, the soil is sandy and lacking structure and nutrients. The housing is not what one would picture for any type of farmstead and the neighbors are a little too close for comfort.

But it is a place where we can land the bees and the chickens, where there will be a roof over our heads and a woodstove to huddle beside during the cold winter months. Best of all─Paul’s place will allow us keep our living expenses low so that we can pay down debts, optimize credit scores, and save money for a deposit on our future forever-farmland.

How are we going to make it happen?

After my dealings with Farm Credit East and the FSA I realize now that a business loan is not an option for Runamuk. It’s going to be another 3-4 years before the Runamuk Apiary begins earning a positive income. Currently large investments made into bees and apiary equipment give us a negative balance on the farm’s income taxes. Our off-farm employment, along with the sales from eggs and beeswax products keep Runamuk afloat, but because of the nature of farming with bees and the time involved in building an apiary I have not been able to improve upon that balance that lenders look at when considering financing an operation.

However rough and rustic Paul’s place may be, it will allow us to live much more cheaply and we will be able to squirrel money away to put towards a down payment on Runamuk’s forever-farmland. Sometime in the next couple of years we’ll run a crowdfunded campaign to raise even more funds to add to our nest-egg for the down-payment and to help cover any fees associated with the sale of the property.

We’ll research the opportunities that various local banking institutions offer and get pre-approved for a personal loan, and then we’ll begin our search in earnest. All options from “lease-to-own” and “for-sale-by-owner” to properties listed with real estate agents will be considered. Paul and I intend to take our time searching for our ideal property.

Once the purchase is finalized, we’ll put a camper on the land and live there seasonally as we develop the property. Winters we will spend in Norridgewock living frugally so that we can continue to invest in our business.

In the meanwhile….

At the moment everything is focused on getting through this move, which will occur towards the end of September. Paul is trying to make the old mobile home livable for us─it had always been more of a learning project for him before, rather than something he intended to actually live in; now he needs to finish the wiring, hook up the plumbing, and install a kitchen sink before we can purchase appliances and begin moving in.

After the transition we will lay out a budget together and then spend the winter working on plans for the apiary. We’re both keen to model our methods after Kirk Webster’s treatment-free apiary, and to build up the Runamuk apiary quickly while still being able to produce at least some honey as we grow. How much we can expand the apiary next year will depend on how many of our current hives make it through the winter, so we’re maintaining careful diligence with the hives right now.

There will only be a small raised bed for gardening next year, so I’ve decided to participate in the CSA program offered by my friends at Sidehill Farm in Madison who also sell their produce at the local Madison Farmers’ Market. Lack of space won’t stop us from growing our own microgreens and sprouts however, and we fully intend to continue making our own bread and cooking as much of our own food as possible in order to keep processed foods out of our diet.

runamuk apiary maineRemaining close to nature

I was asked recently what it was I really wanted─for my farm, for my life─and my answer to the person that asked the question was one that has stuck with me: I want to be close to nature. More than anything else, I always want to be close to nature and to the Earth. I know that so long as I focus on that, so long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other, Runamuk will persevere and so will I.

Stay tuned folks, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!

Moving beehives

The sky was just beginning to lighten Saturday morning as I went out to the apiary with scissors and a wet sponge. The bees were not yet active so it was an ideal time to close up hives in preparation for moving.

Getting hives ready to moveI manage a few hives for Ernie and Gwen Hilton of Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks; just as mine had perished in the brutal winter of 2014-2015, so did the Hilton’s. Over the last 2 years I’ve built up both my hives and those of Hyl-Tun Farm─keeping the nucleus colonies at Runamuk so that I could closely monitor their progress. Now the Hilton’s hives are full-fledged and looking strong and Ernie and I arranged to move them back to Hyl-Tun Farm, which happens to be just a mile up the road from Runamuk’s current location.

How do you move beehives? you might wonder, lol.

I’m no migratory beekeeper and I really prefer not to move hives around too much just because it stresses them and it’s a bit of a hassle, but I’ve done it enough times to know what to expect.

materials for plugging hives for moving

 

I used a new sponge I’d whetted, and simply cut squares off to fit the varying sizes of the hive entrances on each of the Hilton’s 3 hives─bottom and top entrances, as well as any auger holes or any holes the bees are using to come and go from.

plugging hive entrancesThen I used wratchet-straps to bind all of the boxes, their bottom boards and top covers together so that nothing would slide apart during the move. And they were ready to travel!

Hives on the truckSince these hives are too tall to fit easily into my Subaru wagon, Ernie brought his truck over and we hefted each hive and loaded them one by one into it. Then we drove the mile down the road to Hyl-Tun Farm.

hives on the moveWe’d moved the apiary location at Hyl-Tun Farm to make it easier for me to access the hives without having to trek through their fenced pastures, and I picked a spot up on a knoll against the hedgerow that divides two pastures. This spot receives full sun up til the very tail end of the day, offers a natural wind-break, allows for south-facing placement of the hives, and is dry. These colonies will have access to the acres and acres of clover, grasses, and other forage available in the Hilton’s pastures.

hives at hyl-tunSince the Hilton’s apiary site is only about a mile from the Runamuk apiary we were a little concerned that the field bees might return to the former site. The lone hive remaining on that particular bench is a little weaker so any field bees returning there will hopefully join that colony and help to strengthen it. However, to minimize population loss in the Hilton’s hives I tried to create some kind of blockage infront of the entrances. Some of our research indicated that this might help, so I used what was readily available─brush and branches from the hedgerow─and stood them up in the cement blocks that support the hive-bench.

It’s been 2 days since the move so I stopped in at the Hyl-Tun apiary this morning on my way to work to remove the sticks and branches. So far everyone looks great and the Hilton’s are happy to have the bees back on the premises. Yay bees!