May is a Blur

These last 6 weeks are a blur. May is always crazy-busy for farmers and homesteaders across the northern hemisphere. How can it be June already? Here at Runamuk Acres, yours truly has struggled to find a balance between the farm-kitchen and the outside work, overwhelmed with all of the task clamoring for my attention. This is the time of year to get crops in the ground for vegetable production. It is also the time for cover cropping, pasture management, soil improvement, rotational grazing, honeybee production, and improvements to infrastructure. Take a moment now, to find out what we’ve been working on here at this small farm in the western mountains region of Maine.

May Lambs at Runamuk

When I look back over it, these last 6 weeks really are a bit of a blur. I’m always gung-ho to get outside in the spring, following winter’s long incarceration. Within me, there’s this very pressing need to feel the breath of wind on my skin, to touch and be a part of that world outside my door. A need to be at-one with this little patch of Earth that I call home, surrounded by countless other lifeforms─all simply existing here. It is a wondrous and magical thing which has me spellbound, caught in the grip of something bigger and more powerful than myself.

And so, I have doggedly forged ahead with my seasonal work. My mission: to grow food for my family and community, while simultaneously promoting the health and well-being of the habitat I share with the wildlife around me.

Fencing

The main focus, of course, has been the gardens. Yet, before I could give myself over completely to working the soil, I first had to ensure that the sheep and pigs could be secure on the field. That process required time dedicated to making seasonal repairs and improvements to the fencing system that both contains and protects Runamuk’s 23 finnsheep, along with the 6 pigs we are raising for CSA members.

One of last year’s big accomplishments was the long row of T-posts that runs through the middle of Runamuk’s 10-acre backfield. My solar chargers had become weak over time, and no longer contained our wiley flock. About the time I was startled awake at 4am one Saturday morning by an unmistakable “baaaaaaa”, I’d had enough of their shenanigans. When you have to bolt out of bed to wrangle sheep in your pajamas at 4 in the morning, something has to change!

Deron set up an outlet at the edge of the field for me, and now we use a electric fence charger to power the long line of electric fence. I attach electric net fences to that, rotating the sheep around the field. It’s a huge peace of mind, knowing that the sheep are safely contained inside a secure fence. I can leave the farm to make deliveries, do a supply run, or go out for an evening without worry that they might be roving the neighborhood─or standing in the middle of nearby route 16.

It was quite a checklist of projects that had to be seen to before I could move the flock from their winter accommodations up by the farmhouse, out onto the field for the summer. Broken insulators had to be replaced. The wires that make up the electric fencelines had to be mended and/or tightened. The grounding system needed to be beefed-up, and the sheep-tractor needed repairs, too, after a gusty storm had sent it rolling across the field last fall, causing damage to the roof of the structure. It was the first week of May before everything was ready.

Pig Date

May Piglets
The pigs are loving the spent grain sent to us by the Kennebec Brewery!

Deron and I drove over to Maple Lane Farms in Charleston on Mother’s Day weekend to pick up 6 piglets. We put the back seats down in my trusty Subaru Forester, laid out a heavy rubber floor mat from Deron’s mini-van, and put those pigs right in the back of my car. Do I even need to say that we made the hour and a half ride home with the windows open???

Deron called it our “Pig Date”, lol. I have to laugh at the irony of it all. Nothing says “farmer” like a Pig Date─and nothing makes a girl feel sexier than that (insert facepalm here)!

Athletic Sheep

You’d be surprised by how athletic sheep can suddenly become on Moving Day. I was down to my last few bales of hay, though, and moving the flock out onto the field couldn’t wait any longer. Putting the lambs in the back of the Subaru, we took that out first. Then, BraeTek and I managed to coerce the girls out onto the field with only some minor shenanigans.

For the boys, however, I put out an APB (all points bulletin) on facebook seeking volunteers to assist us. 5 locals come to the farm that evening, and I am super grateful for the help. Even with extra bodies, and extra fences set up to “guide” the 5 rams in the direction of the field, the foolish boys had to take the scenic route to get there. At one point, they were nearly in the road, followed by a parade through the garden. Eventually we managed to capture them inside the fencing on the field, and all was well.

Re-Grouping

Once the pigs and sheep were all blissfully settled out on the pasture, I was finally free to turn my attention to the gardens. This year has largely been about tackling some of the bigger projects that have been on my list for the last 3 or 4 years. It’s been about re-grouping, taking a step back in order to take a step forward, shifting gears, and making it all work for me. This has been a season for accepting my farm for what it is─and letting go of what it will never be.

The gardens here at Runamuk, have all─quite literally─“run-a-muck”. To varying degree, the 2 vegetable gardens, 3 perennial gardens, along with my little orchard, have all gotten out of hand here. That’s what happens when you take on too much, too soon. I’m just one person trying to make this farm work. I’ve been spread too thin these last few years─and it shows.

May Sheep at Runamuk Acres
Big thanks to the 5 volunteers who came to help us move the rams! You know who you are!

I’m not too proud to admit that I have some serious farmer-envy when I drive by other local farms… I see all of their beds laid out perfectly with crops growing along so lush and green. With their employees out weeding or harvesting product to sell. I see their high-tunnels, heated greenhouses, and their sexy tractors (yes, I think your tractor’s sexy, lol). I see their farm truck with their slick branding on the doors─and I want to be them.

I’ve had to accept that I’m just never going to be like Elliot Coleman, Jean Martin Fortier, or Conor Crickmore. I’ll never be the next Curtis Stone, or Joel Salatin.

This is partly because I lack the funds. Runamuk has been bootstrapped along since it’s conception, and finances continue to be an issue today. To be honest, though─I believe the fact that I am a single-mom and solo-farmer plays a big part, too.

Those guys all have wives, partners in life─even employees─to help them achieve that level of production on their farms. I am trying to do this largely by myself, while raising my 15 year old son. As a mom, I have to maintain some semblance of family life and routine. Since we homeschool, I also have a responsibility to my son’s education. Ultimately, I am responsible for molding my son into the kind of man I would want to see in the world. Having met some of the men out there, I take that very seriously.

I’m never going to be the next Elliot Coleman. So what? I’m really okay with that. I’m still feeding 40 households, plus a select portion of my surrounding community. That’s nothing to thumb your nose at. My focus now, is to embrace my farm-journey for what it is, let go of what it is not, and make it work for me─and my son.

Spring Projects

With that in mind, I’ve forged ahead with my spring projects. With an eye toward improving the soil through a succession of cover-crops, I’ve taken half of Garden 2 out of production, cover cropping it with peas and oats. That will get mowed at some point later in the season, tilled in, and another cover-crop planted for the fall. Stay tuned for more on that later.

I tilled up the lawn around the 9 apple trees that make up my front orchard, re-sowing it with New Zealand Dwarf White Clover. Clover has an extensive root system that gives structure to the soil, adding nitrogen, while offering a flowering food source for bees and other beneficial insects. Growing not more than 12-inches, this dwarf clover will make a low-maintenance ground cover that reduces the amount of lawn we will be mowing here.

Retreating to the much smaller, Garden 1, Deron helped me re-claim planting beds there, so that I might have a defensible growing space. I’ve had my hands in the soil every day since, a flurry of planting, as I try to utilize every square foot of that garden. I am eager to get into the bigger garden, to re-claim some of that space, and put it to work growing even more food.

The Farmstand

May Farmstand
Locals love our fresh bread and baked goods!

Since I’ve given up on housemates, finances have been especially tight this season. The income generated by those room rentals has been sorely missed. BUT─trying to accommodate strangers in the midst of my family and farm has not. Really, it has been pretty wonderful for BraeTek and I to have the house to ourselves.

That freedom has led to the growth of our farmstand, which is gaining traction, with more and more folks stopping in for our fresh-baked breads, and other delicious baked goods. It’s tricky, though, for this solo-farmer to keep bread coming out of the kitchen, while simultaneously trying to plant half an acre of vegetables. Throughout the month of May, I’ve had to take a couple weeks off from the kitchen, offering only the frozen loaves I’ve had in reserve. Mostly the community seems to be watching, waiting for those first fresh veggies of the season. We’re all craving it.

The biggest news, though, is my book announcement.

Wait─whaaaaaaaat?

Book Announcement!

That’s right, my friends! Just because I haven’t been publishing blog-posts, doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I am a writer, remember? I actually have a couple of different manuscripts that I’ve been working on. Yay me!

It’s been 4 years this month, since I closed on my forever-farm, and I am super excited to say that I am finally writing my book! “How to Buy a Farm With No Money Through the Farm Service Agency”or “How to Bootstrap Your Way to Farm Ownership” (Okay, so the title needs work, lol─leave your suggestions in the comments!). It’s totally possible to make farm-ownership a reality, even if you have no money. It’s a long road, and not for the feint of heart─but it is possible. I truly believe that if I can do it, so can you. So can anyone─if they want it bad enough.

My goal is to have the book finished and ready to launch by the end of September. It will come out first as an ebook available through Amazon’s direct publishing service, followed by availability on Audible and more! Sign up below to receive notifications about the book-launch!

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Person to Person

For this farmer, May came and went in a blur. Now here we are mid-way through June, and I still have a lot of planting to do. Along with 3 “Big-Fish” projects that I am determined to make happen before the end of 2022: 1) set up a pond-pump for a back-up water system. 2) repurpose our existing tunnel into a winter compost-hut. And─most importantly─#3) erect a caterpillar tunnel for season extension in Garden 2.

You know what? So what if my farm doesn’t look like 4 Seasons Farm, or Neversink Farm? Hell, I could never be the next Elliot Coleman even if I wanted to be, because I’m too busy being me! Samantha Burns! Even at this small scale, Runamuk is providing fresh and nutritious locally produced food for it’s community─just like those other farms are doing. I’m damned proud of that. We will grow, you’ll see. I doubt, however, that Runamuk will ever be as big as some of these other big-name farms. And I’m okay with that.

It was Mother Teresa who once said, “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” Maybe I can make more of an impact by keeping my efforts condensed and focused on a smaller scale, than I otherwise might have done at the scale those other farms are running at. Perhaps, my work is meant to be conducted farmer to family, and person to person. I cannot say, but I am grateful for the opportunity to try.

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 to you and yours, my friends!

The Chickens Have Landed!

runamuk chicken tractors

Just over 2 weeks since Closing and I was finally able to bring the chicken flock to the Hive House. There was an unexpected kink in my moving plans that delayed their arrival and sent me prematurely into a construction project that I hadn’t entirely prepared for. The ending result was a pair of twin chicken tractors and the Runamuk flock set up on the garden at our new #foreverfarm location.

chicken tractors on pasture
The finished product: twin chicken tractors housing a total of 55 birds on the garden site.

Change in Plans

It was the nature of this particular real estate transaction that I did not have the opportunity to walk the property at leisure with an analytical eye before I bought it. Up until the day I came to the Hive House as it’s new owner, all I had to go by to prepare Runamuk and my family for the move were the pictures from the real estate listing, and Google Earth images. It wasn’t until I could tour the facilities and the land on my own that I could really take stock of the property’s assets and weaknesses.

Originally the plan had been to convert one of the barn stalls into a winter coop-space that would house the flock until after the dust settled on the #GreatFarmMove when I could then construct moveable chicken tractors to get the birds out on pasture. I had hoped to just put up a few roosts and cut a pop-hole in the back wall of the barn that would lead the chickens into a fenced yard. This space would house them through the winter, with the addition of a hoop-house off the back of the building. However, when I surveyed the barn at length for the first time I realized that was not going to work.

What I found in that back corner stall were the remnants of a dairy trough, and above that-on three walls were broad shelves where the previous owners had housed various sporting gear. It would have been challenging for me to try to take down the shelving to put up roosts and nesting boxes, but the real clincher was what lay on the outside of the back corner of the barn.

The first issue was that the entire back wall of the barn had been sheathed in sheet metal; I would have to cut into it if I intended to have a pop-hole. Secondly, the bug shack is right off that corner of the barn, with a very lovely spruce tree growing alongside it─directly in the path of my would-be hoop-house. And 3rd: there’s a pop-up garage sitting flush alongside the back of the barn.

Looking around for a more suitable spot, I decided upon the lean-to on the garage as winter coop housing for the chickens. It’s not completely enclosed, but there’s a back wall and a good roof, with solid posts and beams supporting it. Formerly this space had housed the previous owner’s snowblower and yard equipment. That would be a bigger project than the chicken tractors however, and since I want to be able to house the chickens on pasture through the remainder of the season anyway, I opted to focus on those first so I could get the birds moved over as soon as possible.

The Chicken Tractor Project

There are many different styles of chicken tractor out there; Joel Salatin has had great success with his set up, and I really like the chicksaw concept, but with my preference to use PVC in construction John Suscovich’s system was easier to adapt to meet Runamuk’s needs. With that in mind I set out to create a chicken tractor that would be small and light enough that I could move it across the pasture on my own, provides a minimum of 50-feet of roost space for Runamuk’s 50 birds, which would also offer maximum amount of nesting space without weighing the overall structure down too much.

chicken tractor twin construction
To have a moveable coop that was both small enough that I could move it alone, and could also house the entire flock comfortably, I needed not one, but TWO coops.

Striving to keep the overall structure as light as possible, I used 2x4s for the frame, 2x3s for the vertical roost supports, and 1x3s for the horizontal roosts as well as for the framing on the nesting boxes.

Half-inch schedule 40 grey PVC (which I prefer because it is UV resistant and does not degrade in the sun as quickly as the white PCV) made up my hoops, and I covered the exterior with chick-wire that was fastened to the hoops with zip-ties or stapled to the wooden frame with a light-duty staple gun.

chicken tractor nesting boxes
Nesting boxes along the length of the coop on either side allows 14 feet of nesting space per coop.

The nesting boxes hang off the sides of the coop, made up of quarter-inch exterior sheathing and this lightweight but weather-resistant material I found in the garden and cut up to serve as a flap for easy egg-collection.

chicken tractor backside
I’m using one set of wheels between the 2 coops.

The ending result was a pair of twin hoop-coop style moveable chicken tractors, each with 14 feet of nesting space and 35 feet of roost space. With tires on the back end I can use my utility dolly to hook onto the front and roll the coop forward to a new location.

Lessons in Preparation

Normally I’m extremely fastidious about preparation when it comes to construction projects, dedicating plenty of time to designing a plan and supply list. This time I was caught by surprise. When I realized I was going to have to stop everything two-thirds of the way through my #GreatFarmMove to construct housing for the flock, I merely put a sketch on paper with some dimensions and jotted down a supply list along the side of the page.

As a result of my lack of planning, there were a couple things I had overlooked and when I had to run for more supplies it was a bit of a trek from my new location in New Portland to the nearest lumber yard or hardware store in Madison. Having to run for materials or parts eats up a lot of time when living so remotely, and the chicken tractor project was a valuable lesson in preparation for life at the Hive House.

learning to use a power saw
I am now proficient with my Ryobi power saw!

I also had to learn how to use a power saw. I’ve traditionally used a simple handsaw for most construction, and asked the man in my life to do any bigger cuts that required the use of power saws. Big whirling blades of death frighten me and I’ve avoided confronting those fears, preferring smaller power tools like my drill, and my weed-whacker. However this was a bigger project with a lot of cuts and I am the man in my life now, so I decided it was time to learn this skill. I started small, with a battery-powered ryobi circular saw─it’s probably the smallest and cutest circular saw out there lol─so it was less threatening than most saws.

The Chickens Have Landed at the Hive House!

The chicken tractors are finished now, and the chickens have landed at the hive house. I have just a few more car loads this week to finish up the moving and then I think I can start unpacking lol. It feels really great to have the work-spaces that Runamuk needs─so far I’ve assembled bee equipment in the barn, wrapped soap in the upstairs craft room, and celebrated with friends in the Bug Shack. I wake up each day eager to get to the work that this farm provides me, and I go to bed each night sore, but happy. I am focused on the task at hand: growing this farm and ensuring it’s longevity. Every day is an adventure, and life is good.

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