Livestock on Pasture and New Lambs at Runamuk!

new lambs at runamuk acres

I love that my forever-farm came with so much open acreage that I can run livestock on pasture. Approximately 12 acres of pasture out behind the farmhouse, and maybe 3-4 acres surrounding the house itself. The pasture, in tandem with investment in electric net-fencing and solar chargers, has opened the door to new opportunities for Runamuk. I’m using chickens and sheep to improve the condition of the soil here, and creating superior food-products by allowing my animals choice grazing all season. It’s everything that farming should be, and I am loving every minute.

Chicken Tractors

For a good 12 or 15 years now, I’ve been keeping chickens. I like them; chickens are fun and interesting creatures. They’re curious, and sociable, and they can be surprisingly clever at times. Having eggs when honey is scarce has been a key strategy in keeping my farm afloat; eggs are a household staple and are always in demand. Produced on a diet of organic and fermented grains, and rotated on pasture, mine are high-quality eggs, and I’m damned proud of them.

livestock on pasture with chicken tractor
“Flock A” is comprised of last year’s birds; they’re doing good work on the site of my future high-tunnel!

The chicken tractors I designed and constructed last year have held up well. The A-frame roosts inside a hoop-house style coop allows roosting space for about 50 birds, with nesting boxes on the sides, and wheels on the back. Using my utility dolly I can roll the structure across the field fairly easily. Before going out on pasture this season, the chicken tractors are each getting some minor modifications.

The lightweight standard blue tarps I’d used last year hadn’t held up very well, and the chicken wire covering my hoop-coops pierced the material in so many places that by the end of last season the tarps were, essentially, perforated. This season I’ve invested in a pair of heavy duty tarps in white, with the thought that the white will reflect heat from the sun better and keep the ladies a little cooler when they’re out there on pasture all summer.

nesting boxes on chicken tractor
The modified nesting boxes on my chicken tractors.

I also made some modifications to the nesting boxes. I removed the pink material (whatever it is!) I’d initially repurposed for the side-walls of my nesting boxes, and replaced it with plywood. Onto the roofs of the nesting boxes, I’d originally planned to install hinges, yet due to the design of my hoop-coops, trying to affix the tarp so that the wind could not take it was “awkward”. Screwing a long strip of plywood to anchor the tarp to the roof of the nesting box, and then using anvil clamps to keep the roof of the nesting box in place, solved both the wind-issue and the hinge-problem at the same time. I have a tarp that isn’t going anywhere unless I want it to, and nesting boxes that keeps eggs in place, allowing for collection of eggs with relative ease.

Sheep Tractor

In order to get the sheep out of the hoop-shed where they’d spent the winter, I had to first construct a shelter they could use out on the pasture this summer. I wanted it to be moveable─like the chicken tractors─but also rugged enough to stand up to the sheep, who sometimes like to rub against and lay against the walls of their shed.

In the barn I found a few landscape timbers that had been left behind by the former owners of my farm, and opted to use 2 of them for skids. I started much the same way as I had with the chicken tractors: by making a bottom frame 5 feet wide by 8 feet long, with the rear wall inset 9 inches to allow for wheels. Then I used 2x3s for the framing and created a salt-box style structure.

salt-box structure sheep tractor for livestock on pastureUsing 2x3s and 1x3s rather than 2x4s, helps keep the weight of the structure down, allowing me to move them around the property by hand.

“Mill-felt” is a material that’s fairly common in this area, having once served as the conveyor belt in one or another of our local paper mills. I happened to have been blessed with several large swaths of this stuff, left behind by the former owners. I’ve used it for smothering new garden plots, keeping drafts out of the chicken coop, and now the sheep tractor. It’s a bit of a PIA to cut, and heavy as all hell to work with (especially when wet!), but I really like it for certain purposes. And so, I cut it to fit the shape of the structure, and tacked it onto the sides as my walls.

mill-felt on sheep tractor for livestock on pasture
Mill-felt as walls.

The roof is made of sheathing plywood that I’ve painted fairly generously. I even embellished the structure with my farm name.

sheep tractor_2019
I was lacking 1 sheet of sheathing plywood for the roof, and with Home Depot an hour away opted to cover the roof with a tarp til I can make the trek to buy materials.

I’m pretty pleased with how the sheep shed turned out. It’s heavy enough that the wind can’t take it, rugged enough to stand up to the sheep, and still light enough that I can move the thing with the dolly. Most importantly, so long as I keep the back wall to the west, the structure protects the sheep from the driving winds that come down off Mount Abram, and gives them a place to get out of the sun, as well as any inclement weather.

sheep livestock on pasture for rotational grazing
Lily and Ghirardelli are excited to feast on fresh green grasses!

Lambs!

Finally the time had come to pick up the lamb that I’d reserved back in March! I made the trek on Friday, an hour and a half southwards to Chelsea, Maine, where Olde Haven Farm is located. Pam and Kelby Young have been growing their farm for the last 5 years, and being there and seeing their operation, I couldn’t help but hope I’ll have as much accomplished at Runamuk in 5 years as these folks have done at their farm. 2 large barns (they said 1 was there when they bought the property), 1 greenhouse, 3 high-tunnels, a commercial kitchen attached to a farm-store, 2 other livestock sheds, and they’d cleared about 30 acres to establish the rolling pasture now in existence there.

tunnels at olde haven farm
2 of the 3 high-tunnels at Olde Haven Farm

If you’re looking for commercial-level production, Finnsheep are not for you. These are a smaller breed, with a hanging weight in the range of 45 pounds. It’s some of the best-tasting lamb-meat you’ll ever have, however, and their fleeces are incredibly luxurious. I especially like that Finns are an old-world heritage breed, which has largely retained their natural instincts for mothering. They tend to produce multiple lambs with every pregnancy, and can produce a variety of colors in their fleeces. Olde Haven Farm is one of the top 10 breeders of Finnsheep in America, and after seeing their stock and talking with Pam and Kelby, I can see why. These farmers really know their stuff. Their animals are all premium livestock, and they won’t let any animal go if they don’t have supreme confidence in.

2nd barn at Olde Haven Farm
The newer barn at Olde Haven currently houses the myriad lambs.

I had a hard time picking out just 2, but Pam and Kelby were patient with me. They took me around to see the Mamas and the Papas to get a better idea what the babies might look like when they grow up. We toured the farm, checking out the high-tunnels, and the back pastures. Much of the infrastructure in existence at Olde Haven is thanks to various NRCS programs that the Youngs have taken advantage of. Kelby strongly advises beginning farmers to develop a relationship with their local NRCS office; he says once you’ve been filing your “Schedule F” with your taxes for 10 years, the opportunities for funding decrease significantly, so he urges you to utilize those programs while you can.

finnsheep lambs livestock on pasture at olde haven farm
Lambs living the life at Olde Haven Farm in Chelsea, Maine!

It was a tough choice, but in the end I managed to make my selection: a rugged little ram lamb, and a dainty little ewe─both brown and white marbled in color. You’d think out of all the choices I’d have selected 2 different colored sheep for the sake of variety, but Kelby said this guy was one of their best ram lambs this year, and I could tell just by looking at him that he is strong and healthy, and will sire some beautiful babies in the future. The ewe I chose is a little on the small side, but something about her struck me, and so I brought her home too!

new lambs livestock on pasture at runamuk acres
New Finnsheep lambs at the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm

Changing the World

I really enjoy having livestock in my life. It’s rewarding to know that I am providing my critters the kind of existence these animals are meant to have: foraging on green grass under a blue sky. The electric net fencing allows me to move them around the field, so they always have fresh grass and forage available to them. These are some happy and contented animals; they greet me with enthusiasm, asking of my attention and love, and I give it to them wholeheartedly. We’re a team─these animals and I. They may not realize it, but the work they’re doing on the pasture is important to Runamuk’s long-term success─and important for the ecosystem we’re a part of. These critters are changing the world just by doing what critters do, and I am the facilitator─steward of animal, plant, and land at Runamuk Acres.

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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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What are the Essential Tools Needed to Get Started in Beekeeping?

beekeeping smoker

Potential new beekeepers often ask me what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? What do I really need? Beekeeping is a big expense up front, and it can be 2 years sometimes before you see a return on that investment. People usually want to know which tools they absolutely have to have, and which ones they could perhaps do without.

choosing apiary location
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, where miles of pasutre offers superior forage for bees!

#1 Protective Gear

Bees are very sensitive to their beekeeper; they’ll know when you’re nervous or agitated and they’ll respond in kind. New beekeepers are understandably a little fearful of their bees at first─having that protective layer allows you to feel safe while working with the hive. When you feel safe you’ll relax and the bees will too, resulting in fewer stings.

I recommend some kind of veil and gloves at least, to get started in beekeeping. You can get a full suit, or a jacket/veil combos like the one (affiliate link) I recently purchased through Amazon. But you could also make do with a mosquito head-net, a pair of latex gloves, and a long sleeved shirt, which is what I did my first few years as a beekeeper.

Once you become more comfortable with the bees you may not need to use the gear for every trip to the apiary, but you’ll find there will be instances when you will want the added protection of the veil and gloves. Sometimes the bees can be “cranky”─during a nectar dearth for example, or when they suddenly find themselves Queenless, or if a skunk has been pestering them at night. Get some good protective gear and always have it with you when you go to the apiary.

#2 Hive Tool

The hive tool is probably one of my most-used tools─so much so that it fairly lives in my back-pocket during the beekeeping season. I don’t go to the apiary without it, and it’s nearly impossible to work the hives without this tool. Seriously! The bees will put wax and propolis everywhere and you will need some kind of tool to break the seal so that you can manipulate the covers and the frames and the boxes.

I prefer the hive tools with the little hook on one end so that I can get under the lip of the frames to lift them out of the box. The other end has a beveled edge, making it a great scraping tools for clearing away burr-comb or cleaning up boxes after winter losses.

In a pinch you could use a mini pry-bar or a screw driver, but the little hook-thing is such an advantage that I feel it’s worth the $7 investment in this tool. This particular hive tool (affiliate link) is offered by MannLake, and you can get it at an affordable price through Amazon.

#3 Smoker, Smoker-Fuel, and Lighter

Smoke interrupts the chemical pheromone signals that the bees use to communicate with one another. It also distracts the bees, causing an instinctual fear of fire to wash over them and so the bees will go down into the hive to gorge themselves on honey in the event that they should have to abandon the hive to fire. This interruption and distraction is what allows the beekeeper to get into the hive for maintenance.

I prefer the smokers with leather bellows because: a) I’m working to reduce the amount of plastic in my life, and b) the plastic ones have a tendency to crack with use over the span of a few years, and once they can’t hold air the smoker does not function.

The size of the smoker you will need depends upon the number of hives you’re working with. For most backyard beekeepers with 2-4 hives, the smaller smokers are fine. This smoker (affiliate link) is just $12.99 on Amazon and should get you started in your beekeeping adventures.

#4 Frame Grippers

I find I primarily use my frame grippers when I’m first getting into a hive. That first frame can be really difficult to pull up out of the box─fused together with wax and honey and bees, and wedged down between the other frames so that it doesn’t want to give. When used in tandem with the hive tool, the frame grippers make extracting that first frame so much easier on both the beekeeper, and the bees.

There are many different styles of frame grippers available; personally I prefer the straight forward metal ones because they’re durable and easy to clean─these aluminum frame grippers (affiliate link) are available for just under $10 at Amazon.

#5 Bee Brush

You won’t need this tool as frequently as you will the smoker or the hive tool, but when it’s time to harvest honey, or if you want to take a sample to check the mite-pressure in the colony, you’ll want a bee brush.

I have a bee brush like this (affiliate link), which is available on Amazon for $8.60, but my beekeeping mentor liked to use a large turkey feather. Whatever you choose, it should be soft─so that you don’t hurt the bees when you go to brush them off the frame.

#6 Books!

There’s a lot to learn about bees and beekeeping and I strongly advise anyone interested in getting started with bees to first do their homework. You’ll find many, many great books on the subject.

I really like Richard E. Bonney’s books: Beekeeping, A Practical Guide and Hive Management, A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers.

You can’t beat Storey Publishing for good reference manuals, and their Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees is typically the book I include when I offer bee-schools. The Backyard Beekeeper, is another good reference book, with the added bonus of a chapter at the end about using beeswax; it includes some really nice recipes for salves and skin creams.

Once you’ve become acquainted with beekeeping, you’ll naturally start looking for next-level books and Brother Adam’s Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey is one of the most illuminating manuscripts out there. Brother Adam was in charge of all beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey in England between 1919 and 1992. This is not a how-to book; it’s more of a general account of the beekeeping as it was carried out at Buckfast and passed down through the ages. The book offers insight on techniques for rearing and breeding Queens, bee care, seasonal hive management, honey production and even mead-making.

#7 Woodenware

assembling equipment for beehives
Buying unassembled pieces and assembling them yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

What you require for you hive will depend on the style and methods you decide to go with. The traditional Langstroth hive is still the most common type of hive used in beekeeping, but many new beekeepers are having good luck with the Top Bar hives, which have the added benefit of being easy to construct from repurposed materials.

If you go with the Langstroth you will need the following for each hive:

  • Telescoping Cover
  • Inner Cover
  • Bottom Board
  • Boxes for Hive Bodies*
  • Boxes for Honey Supers*
  • Entrance Reducer
  • Mouseguard
  • Hive Stand

*The number of boxes you’ll need to invest in will be contingent upon how you choose to set up your hives. Standard set up for a Langstroth hive is 2 deeps, and I usually recommend having 4 honey supers on hand. However, more and more beekeepers are choosing to use medium boxes exclusively on their hives because they’re easier to lift. 3 medium boxes are essentially the equivalent of 2 deeps if you decide to go with mediums, but it might be a good idea to keep at least 1 deep box on hand in case you should ever need to buy replacement nucleus colonies, as those tend to come in a deep nuc box. Generally it costs about $200 on average for the hive pieces.

Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine.

I’m fortunate to live within driving range of Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine, which allows me to save on shipping. This is a Maine-based company manufacturing woodenware─the hive boxes, tops and bottoms, and frames. They supply large beekeeping operations as well as hobbyists across New England and the East Coast, using Maine’s own Eastern White Pine, which grows in abundance in our state to produce easy to assemble equipment.

I’d recommend searching locally for quality woodenware first, but if you don’t have a good source within driving range, check out Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.

Be wary of buying used equipment. Used equipment may be carrying diseases that killed it’s previous occupants. Residues that are left behind can live for years and you could be slowly or quickly killing your honeybee investment by putting them in dangerous equipment. Unless you know why the equipment is available and how it was used, I would avoid used hive equipment.

#8 Feeders

feeding beehives syrup in the fall
Mason-jar sugar-syrup feeder.

Bees, like any other livestock, sometimes need supplemental feed in order to survive. You’ll need a way to be able to offer sugar-syrup to the bees. There are many feeders available commercially, but for the small-scale or backyard beekeeper, I recommend the mason-jar.

Simply take a quart-sized mason jar, which most homesteaders and farmers have around the house anyway, perforate the lid and then fill with sugar-syrup. Place the feeder directly on the inner cover, inside another box and under the telescoping cover.

Voila! A bee-feeder!

#9 Sugar

Beekeepers should always have extra sugar on-hand for feeding their bees. New packages and nucleus colonies need to be fed in order to grow strong enough to fill their hives and survive the winter. Even after a colony is fully established there are times when they require supplemental feeding, like when there’s a dearth in the nectar flow, or during a poor season.

Avoid raw sugar, which can cause dysentery in the hive. This is one case where the refined granulated sugar is the better option for the health of the colony.

#10 Bees!

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Naturally you’re going to need bees to put in your beehive, lol. Certainly you can save on the cost of the bees if you can catch a swarm to install in your hive, but swarms are not as common today as they were 30 years ago. And with so many new beekeepers all vying for free bees, you might have a hard time filling your hive that way.

I strongly encourage new beekeepers to seek out a local apiary offering nucleus colonies from hardy stock adapted to your specific region. Check with your state’s beekeepers’ association for a list of suppliers near you, and be prepared to order well in advance of the season. Here in Maine, if you haven’t ordered your nucs by the end of February, you’ll have a hard time finding any at all; pricing can range anywhere between $125 to $180 for 4 or 5 frame overwintered nucleus colonies.

Bee Proactive!

It’s a wise idea to prepare in advance of the beekeeping season so that all of your equipment is assembled, painted and ready to go when you need it. Get a tool box for your beekeeping tools. Stow your veil and gloves beside the smoker along with extra fuel, and keep everything at the ready in case of emergency.

Beekeeping (unless you’re managing larger numbers of hives) doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it is time sensitive. Typically, when you need something you need it immediately and delaying hive manipulations because you need to put a box together or because you have to run to the store for sugar before you can make more syrup, can cause a chain of events which could result in the eventual demise of the colony. Beekeepers should always bee proactive (had to go there lol, sorry-not sorry!) to ensure the survival of their colonies, such is the nature of beekeeping today.

Do you have a beekeeping tool you just couldn’t do without? Share it with us by leaving a comment below!

Thinking of getting bees? Wondering what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? Check out Runamuk Acres in Maine for the answer!

How To Make Pollen Patties

pollen-patties-for-beehives

Not every beekeeper needs to use pollen patties on their hives. Here in Maine there is an abundant supply of pollen in the fall and our bees are able to store enough for the colony’s purposes through the winter, until fresh pollen is again available in the spring. Unless you’re planning to make early season splits or raise your own Queens, or if you’re building up in preparation for commercial pollination─you probably don’t need to use pollen patties at all.

how to make pollen pattiesOn the other hand, if you’re seeking to grow your apiary and make hive increases─then you might be looking to boost bee populations to be able to do that. Feeding bees pollen stimulates brood production: an enriched diet causes nurse bees to secrete lots of royal jelly, which spurs them to prepare cells for eggs and the Queen deposits them. If you time it right you can have a gang-buster colony that you can use to optimize your operation.

Note: For more info on what pollen patties are and why you might want to use them check out this article on the Maine Beekeepers’ website. For the purposes of this article, we will assume the reader is familiar with the pollen-patty and has performed his/her due diligence to learn why and how to use them. Also, take a look at this article by Randy Oliver over at Scientific Beekeeping; he did a comparative test of various pollen supplements compared to real pollen which is pretty informative reading.

Introducing Bee-Pro!

Bee Pro Pollen Substitute
Bee-Pro pollen substitute via Mann Lake.

The Bee-Pro pollen supplement offered by Mann Lake was recommended to me by beekeeping veteran Bob Egan of Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, who was the Maine State Apiarist until he retired some years ago. Bob is a no-nonsense kind of guy─with a stern gaze, long white hair pulled back into a pony-tail that’s always under a ball-cap and a fabulously bushy gray mustache. He swears by the Bee-Pro pollen-sub and made a point to send me home with a sample of it last summer, saying the bees just crave it, they want it, they’re all over it as soon as you put it on the hive.

That’s high praise from one hardened beekeeper and good enough for me! We ordered a 50-pound bag of the stuff and are using it to make our pollen-patties this spring. Beekeepers who are seeking to significantly grow their apiaries can buy pollen-substitute in bulk to make their own patties and save money, since commercially prepared pollen-patties can be expensive. Making your own also means you’ll know exactly what went into the pollen patties that you’re feeding your bees.

Making the pollen patties

Step 1: Make sugar-syrup using a 1:1 ratio. I used a quart of water and a quart of sugar to make 2 quarts of liquid, but you can make smaller or larger batches using the same method. Allow the syrup to cool some before use. Just before using the syrup I added 2 teaspoons of Honey-B Healthy vitamin supplement to it and stirred it well to combine.

Step 2: In a large mixing bowl or a 5 gallon bucket (depending on the size of the batch you’re making) combine your pollen-supplement with the syrup to make a dough-like substance. The mixture should be similar to peanut butter cookie dough, or play-dough. Dry, but doughy.

Make Your Own Pollen Patties
I weighed out my dollops to .5lb each so that I could track each hive’s consumption.

Step 3: Place a large dollop of the dough in the center of a square of freezer paper. Sometimes the moisture from the pollen patties can soak through the waxed paper, causing it to tear easily. It’s a little more expensive than waxed paper, but the freezer paper holds up much better for storage and transport purposes. Place another piece of freezer paper over the dollop and flatten it some with your hand before taking a rolling pin to smooth and roll the patty out between the paper.

diy pollen pattties
For each patty I cut a 6 inch swatch off the roll of freezer paper, then cut that in half to make 2 pieces of paper.

Storage: Pollen patties don’t need to be kept refrigerated, but a cool, dry location is recommended. You can even freeze them for later use.

pollen patties for beehives
Ready for the bees!

Just remember that not every beekeeper needs to feed their colonies pollen supplements, and also that stimulating brood production early may mean you need to also feed more sugar-syrup to a bounding population. However, if you’re planning to make increases or Queens, or if you’re renting hives for pollination services and need strong colonies─then pollen patties might be a good option for you.

Have you ever made your own pollen-patties? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below for others to learn from!

Recommended Reading:

How to Make Pollen Patties – via Mudsongs.org

Feeding Bees Pollen-Patties in Early Spring – on the Maine State Beekeepers’ website.

A Comparative Test of Pollen Subs – from the Scientific Beekeeper, Randy Oliver.

 

Introducing Rootsy!

I’m taking a moment today to introduce Runamuk’s new affiliation with Rootsy. I’m really excited about this because the Rootsy network is made up of some of my very favorite sustainable-lifestyle bloggers and gathers into one place some of the best and most reliable information about homesteading, gardening, livestock, cooking, preparedness, herbalism and simple living that you’ll find on the internet.

Rootsy is a mash-up of new technology and vintage skills; members gain access to a whole library of information, as well as tutorials, online workshops, ecourses and more─all available at rootsy.org. Beginning April 1st they will be accepting members to the Rootsy Network; each month members will have access to expert instruction and inspiring reading that will help you on your journey to a more self-reliant and sustainable life.

Check it out!

Coming up in April the instructors at Rootsy will be talking about Up-Cycling: turning old stuff into new. In May they’re going to be discussing Preparedness, and in June it’s all about taking charge of your family’s health with herbal remedies. This is a fantastic community to be involved with, everyone is super kind, helpful, and supportive. You’ll find a lot of how-to articles, diy blog-posts, and in addition to the ecourses and webinars I already mentioned are the member-only forums where you can reach out to other homesteaders for advise and assistance.

Many of the Rootsy instructors are also members of the Homestead Bloggers Network, of which Runamuk is also associated with. Colleen Codekas is th author of “Grow Forage Cook Ferment“, Meredith Fox─the author of “ImaginAcres“─love that blog name! And Jessica Lane who is the author of the 104Homestead, which is located right here in Maine! Kathie Lapcevic─the author of HomespunSeasonalLiving and Connie Meyer of UrbanOveralls. My friend Teri Page from HomesteadHoney, as well as Angi Schneider at SchneiderPeeps and Shelli Wells over at PreparednessMama.

If you’re not following homestead blogs you’re probably not familiar with those names, but I do follow homestead blogs and podcasts, blogs about sustainable living, podcasts about farming. They give me inspiration, hope that I might be able to do it too, and help me solve problems to the every day issues that pop up on a farm and homestead. These bloggers are out there living the life I want and if I can learn something from them that helps me on my own journey then I want to read about their experiences. As a fellow blogger I’m really excited to be able to work with the ladies even in the reduced capacity as an affiliate member.

For every person who clicks on my affiliated links and then subscribes as a member with Rootsy, Runamuk receives a commission. Afterall, every part of my farm needs to generate an income. We have no free-loaders on a farm. But I enjoy writing─more than enjoy─it’s something I need to do─like breathing. It’s part of who I am and if I don’t get the words out of my head then I get blocked up─constipated lol. Ideally I’d like to earn more from my writing and have my writing take the place of my off-farm income. I’d like to write a book too─several books actually. What you’ve seen on the Runamuk blog with our Johnny’s sponsorship, the ads by Ball, eBay, and Google ads, is my attempt to make the Runamuk blog work for me. So that I can continue to do the work that I love and still pay my bills.

So check out Rootsy and see if they might be able to aid you on your own journey to a more self-reliant and sustainable life. And stop back soon to see what’s new at Runamuk: the growing season is almost upon us!

How to Build a Temporary Chicken Coop for a Maine Winter

Housing for the chickens was a big concern during Runamuk’s Great Farm Move. It had taken a full year to rebuild the Runamuk flock following my divorce, and I was up to nearly 90 birds in varying stages of production when I made the difficult decision to let go of Jim’s property in Starks. As we build up our apiary for honey production, selling eggs at the local farmers’ market has been a crucial stop-gap for Runamuk. Without honey we only have our beeswax soaps and salves available, but the rules of our market dictate that vendors can sell only a percentage of craft-items. So the eggs are important in order for my farm to continue to sell at the farmers’ market.

However, while Jim’s farm offered existing infrastructure─a huge asset in establishing a farm─Paul’s place does not. And with Paul busy trying to make the old mobile home there fit for habitation through the winter, he couldn’t spare the time to construct a coop for the birds. What was I going to do with my chickens?

I briefly considered selling and/or culling the entire flock; with the price of grain, selling eggs at $4 doesn’t really turn a profit. But again, not having eggs at market wasn’t really an option so I decided that it was imperative that at least half the flock make it through the move.

Enter the hoop-coop: a temporary chicken coop structure made from a hoop-house.

temporary-chicken-coop-for-winterWhat is a Hoop-House?

I’m a big fan of the hoop-structures: mini hoop-houses, low-tunnels, chicken tractors, cold-frames, high-tunnels─you name it! These are simple and inexpensive structures typically made up of a wooden frame, hooped EMT or plastic piping, and then covered with heavy greenhouse plastic. In many cases these are heated only by the sun and cooled by the wind.

diy-high-tunnel
Here are some of the high-tunnels at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm in Albion, Maine.
hoop-house-how-to
Quick and dirty seedling hoop-house I made back in 2013 using rebar, PVC and 4mil contractor’s plastic.

A hoop-house allows the gardener or farmer to extend their growing season by 4 to 6 weeks in the spring and the fall, provides protection of crops from increment weather, and offers the ability to grow some superior crops. Here in the northeast many growers prefer to grow heat-loving crops inside their high-tunnels because they can keep more controlled conditions for high-revenue produce like tomatoes, peppers, squashes and melons.

Note: See my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film for more information about this useful tool for gardeners, homesteaders, and farmers!

Check out Runamuk’s Hoop-Coop in this video!

Features and Benefits of this Design

  • Simple construction
  • Can be built with hand-tools
  • Mostly a 1-person job
  • Relatively inexpensive to construct
  • Sheds snow well
  • Versatile structure for multiple uses
  • Space for 30-40 birds*
  • Tall enough to stand/work inside
  • Birds are under sunlight ALL DAY
  • Moveable**
  • Can attach other equipment to the wooden frame.

*The industry standard is 4 square-feet of space per bird, so I can fit 30 birds in this structure. In the winter however, here in Maine’s northern climate, farmers often crowd a few extra birds together for added warmth at night. I’ve had 37 birds in this coop since the move and so long as there has been adequate roosting space they seem to be fine.

This coop is moveable, however it’s rugged enough where most individuals aren’t going to be able to haul it off through the power of just their body. Probably 2-4 people could drag this coop across the ground, but I’m planning to sink some heavy duty eye-bolts into the base of the hoop-coop’s frame, and I could either use a sturdy rope or a tow-chain to hook it onto my Subaru and pull it where I want it─provided I can get my car to the desired location!

Constructing the Hoop-Coop

I constructed my temporary chicken coop in a series of phases; I’m pretty methodical when it comes to construction.

temporary-chicken-coop
I don’t have a truck at the moment, but Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, where you’re at, right now.”

Phase 1:  I spent weeks leading up to the project researching to see what other farmers had done, and talking with my market peeps or colleagues at Johnny’s about the best way to do this. I put together a design that I liked and made up my materials list. Then I took myself off to Home Depot.

Phase 2:  The appointed day dawned and I set up early, putting my sawhorses in place and hauling out all of my equipment and materials. I’m very careful to measure twice before making any cuts, and I almost always pre-drill my screws. The frame of the coop, along with the hoops were all put together within a few hours.

hoop-house-infrastructure-beginning-farmersPhase 3:  I came back another day to put the door on. Framed in the ends and then added chicken wire.

Phase 4: I had to coordinate scheduling with Paul to get the plastic on over the top. Then I put plastic over the chicken wire to close it in for the winter.

putting-plastic-on-hoop-house
Here is the hoop-house chicken coop with plastic on.

Voila! Temporary chicken-coop durable enough to withstand a Maine winter!

For those who might like to construct their own hoop-coop I’ve created Free Chicken Coop Design Download for you! It has step-by-step instructions with plenty of pictures, a materials list with sourcing information. You’re welcome!

Problems Encountered During & Since Project Completion

Too Much Outside Input:

I have a lot of farming-friends and I asked many of them for their input as I was developing the design for my hoop-coop. I had so much advice that it was difficult for me to figure out which plan would work best for me-as a female farmer─and which method would best meet my skill level in construction. Ken and Kamala Hahn deserve special thanks for their input on the design of the hoop-coop; these farming friends even went so far as to send me pictures of their own temporary coop structure to help me formulate a design.

I really wanted to use the EMT metal conduit as they do in the construction of high-tunnels, but my friend Crymson Sullivan (aka – Krim) over at Sidehill Farm in Madison, reminded me that they use carriage bolts on those, and that there’s a lot of drilling and grinding when assembling the metal hoops of a high-tunnel to prevent sharp edges from cutting through the greenhouse film. He steered me in the grey electrical conduit, sharing that he has a buddy who uses the stuff to construct full-size high-tunnels for his operation, and since I already have an affinity for PVC-structures this option was right up my alley! Thanks Crym!

Extra Hands Needed for a Couple of Stages of Construction

Paul was busy finalizing necessities like plumbing in the trailer-homestead and time was of the essence so it was important that I complete this project on my own. I managed the frame and the hoops just fine, but when it came time to affix the supports for the door I found it tricky to put up the door frame alone. I strongly urge you to recruit another pair of hands to hold the 2x4s while you screw the bottom end to the frame of your structure. I did this by myself, but it was difficult to keep the 2×4 straight and upright with just one hand, while attempting to screw the 2×4 in place with the one other hand. The 2×4 wavered─I wavered─and I clonked myself in the head with the 2×4 so hard that I saw stars. Extra hands would have made this part a lot easier, but you don’t have to take my word for it!

Difficult to Protect Plastic From Chicken-Wire

Because this structure was initially intended for chickens I wrapped chicken wire around the lower third of the inside of the coop, and also used it to close in either end. We had to take extra care to cover the sharp ends of the chicken wire to protect the greenhouse film.

predator-proofing-modifications-hoop-house-chicken-coopPredator-Proofing Modifications Needed

One of the downsides to living in a forest of oak trees where nuts are abundant is that rodents are plentiful, and as a result, so are weasels. In hindsight, lining the bottom of the coop with the same 1×2 fencing material that I used for the fencing would have offered better protection from these chicken predators. Or I could have dug a trench all the way around the base of the coop and laid 1/2-inch wire mesh at least 12 inches down. As it was, we lost 3 birds and Paul spent an afternoon digging a deep trench inside the coop so that he could stretch a length of 1×2-inch wire mesh along the wall to keep out a determined weasel.

So far he has not been able to get back into the coop.

Hoop-Coop Does the Job!

egg-production-in-a-hoop-houseThere were a few hiccups along the way, but now that it’s done I’m very happy with my hoop-coop. The Runamuk flock are exposed to sunlight all day─as soon as the sun begins to lighten the sky, til the very end of the day when the darkness grows, my chickens are receiving 100% of the available light. I don’t need to add lights to stimulate their production and since I’m not going to market right now, I’m just allowing them to produce eggs at whatever rate comes naturally.

hoop-house-in-snowWe live in Maine. We experience serious winter conditions here. Just before New Years’ we received 18-inches of snow that put the hoop-coop to the test, followed by another good dose of snow a few days later and so far the coop remains standing there stolidly. It sheds the snow well, and as an added precaution we have a soft-bristled push-broom that we keep in the coop so that we can push up on the center of the coop-ceiling to make the snow slide off. Easy.

chicken-hoop-house
A deep layer of pine shavings and straw, mix with the chicken poo to create a mass of decomposing material that naturally lends heat to the coop.

The coop is warmed by the sun, in addition to the deep-litter bedding method we’re using, which generates additional heat as the decomposition process happens right beneath our feet. Even when it’s freeze-your-face-off cold outside, the chickens are relatively comfortable inside the sanctity of their hoop-coop. We’ve only turned on the heat lamp on the nights when temperatures are well below zero and we’ve had no frozen combs or wattles whatsoever.

Ventilation of the coop was a concern, but simply leaving the door open, or cracked─has (so far) provided sufficient ventilation for the birds and farmers.

A Great Asset

As we get closer to spring I have every intention of putting together another hoop-structure in order to have space for all the seedlings I’ll be growing for the 2017 growing season. The chickens will get moved from their current location and their winter hoop-coop will house my tomato plants this season. I envision yet another hoop-house for growing greens and carrots into the winter─just like Eliot Coleman, but on a smaller scale mainly meant to feed my family.

It cost me $310 to put this coop together. A third of that expense was in the greenhouse film, but I have enough of that left over to create several more such structures. I really see these hoop-structures as the key to the infrastructure issue many beginning farmers are coping with. Quick and easy to put together, with the biggest part of the expense in the tufflite greenhouse film, and able to be used for a wide variety of purposes on the farm or homestead. Cover it with a tarp instead and you’ve got a sheep-shed or a tool-shed. Hell, I’d even consider living in one if it meant I could continue farming!

Hoop-houses are a great asset, but you don’t have to take my word for it! Try it yourself!

Recommended Resources

Sam’s Hoop-Coop Step-by-Step Instructions – complimentary instructions for you to build your own versatile hoop-house structure for use as livestock shelter, growing space, or other creative uses on your farm or homestead.

Tufflite Greenhouse Film: Tuff Stuff! – Check out my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film.

Low-Cost, Versatile Hoop Houses – Mother Earth News

High Tunnels – a great pdf resource from the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Hoophouse & Quick hoops crops – Good information from GrowingforMarket.com listing the types of crops that perform best in hoop-house and season-extension conditions.

Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House – more details about growing crops into the winter in your hoop-house. From Mother Earth News.

Make a Hoop-House to Extend Your Growing Season – via the HomesteadingHippy.com.

Laying hens for sale

laying hens for sale

As we gear up to move Runamuk from Starks to Norridgewock I’m preparing to construct a temporary hoop-coop for the laying flock, since there isn’t a readily available coop or barn at Paul’s place. I’ll document the whole project for you in an upcoming article, but for now just know that I’ve made my design, and I’m gathering the materials for the project.

One of my concerns with the hoop-coop was ensuring the warmth and security of the birds during the long cold months ahead, so I’ve decided to invest in a section of greenhouse film from Johnny’s to cover the structure. This kind of plastic is pretty expensive, but the light transmission and the warmth generated is worth the investment to me (plus I’ve seen what happens in the winter when you use the contractor’s plastic available at the local hardware store─NOT fun!). Thankfully Johnny’s is currently running their fall sale on season extension supplies, but even so, to make the purchase of this plastic I need to sell a few of my up-and-coming layers.

laying hens for saleThese birds are Isa Brown egg-layers that we got at Tractor Supply earlier in the spring. They are 18 weeks or so old now, and are just beginning to lay nice large brown eggs. They have not been fed organic or even GMO-free feed, but I can promise they are healthy and happy hens. I’m hoping to get $150 for them, but I’ll accept the best offer that comes my way.

My only stipulation is that I would prefer they all go together; I’m right out straight as we continue to prepare to move the farm and I just don’t have the time to wrangle multiple groups of birds for folks. If you, or someone you know might be interested in some laying hens feel free to contact me by phone or email. And remember, sharing is caring!

Stay tuned folks!

Butchering Meat Rabbits

**WARNING**
This article discusses the slaughtering and butchering of livestock.
The images below may not be appropriate for all audiences.

On principle I firmly believe that as a homesteader and farmer I need to know how to manage my livestock from beginning to end. When my chickens reach the end of their egg-laying life it only makes sense to me that those birds become dinner for my family. They’re not pets and they’re worth a lot more to me in the freezer then the few bucks I might make from the sale of an old ratty chicken. In all truth, those tough old hens have made some fine meals that have sustained my household through some tight financial times. I’ve come to rely on them for a source of meat.

butchering meat rabbits
Here are our bunnies on pasture. We’ve simply adapted a dog kennel to be utilized as a rabbit-tractor for the time being.

When my partner Paul came to Runamuk he brought with him a small group of meat rabbits: a buck and 3 does. Rabbits are new to me and we’re still working to perfect our systems for them. The concept is to house them in rabbit-tractors on pasture so provide the rabbits with a quality lifestyle, and in return we get their super-charged bunny-poop to fertilize and improve the soil, as well as the potential for meat to sustain our household. We haven’t successfully raised a litter yet for the freezer, but I want to know how to butcher them so that when the time comes I’ll be prepared.

As the summer winds down and we move into fall, many farmers are thinking about culling and thinning their flocks and herds. I have about a dozen older birds at Runamuk to process and get into the freezer before the move. At Hide & Go Peep Sonia had extra male bunnies that she did not need and did not want to continue feeding all winter; I had previously asked about the possibility of a tutorial so she seized the opportunity for this skill-sharing workshop and I made sure to clear my schedule.

So I took myself off to Hide & Go Peep with the knives and whetstones I have designated for processing critters, wearing grubby farm clothes that I did not care about getting blood and gore on. I met another of my market peeps at Sonia’s, along with one of our regular patrons of the Madison Farmers’ Market who had brought her son and a couple others who were interested in learning skills for a more sustainable living.

Setting Up a Work-Space

We started off by helping Sonia to prep the staging area, cleaning out a shed so that we could skin and gut the rabbits out of the sun. We sanitized all tables, equipment and knives to be used in the processing, sharpened knives and organized the space.

When everything was ready Sonia asked the group to suspend all conversation to avoid spooking and frightening the rabbit designated to be the “demo-dude”. Like most small organic farmers, Sonia strives to give her livestock the best possible life she can, she forms relationships with her critters, grows attached to them, and though we accept the fact that this is a necessary part of life and farming, it’s never an easy part and she wants their ending of life to be quick and humane.

Killing the Rabbit

Here’s where it gets tough.

Sonia cuddles the rabbit for a few moments, connecting with and calming the creature one last time. When she’s ready she crouches over the rabbit, using her knees and thighs to hold him in place since rabbits have strong hind legs and will kick and scratch. Then the rabbit is knocked unconscious using a hammer or other such blunt object. You could use a .22 gun if you had one. Immediately the rabbit’s throat is slit so that it bleeds out. Sonia recommends holding the rabbit in place until the final spasms and twitches are finished and the rabbit goes limp; this helps to keep the pelt clean and prevents bruising the meat or yourself.

Skin the Carcass

There are different ways to process rabbits. Sonia ties a slip knot at the ankles of the rabbit’s hind legs and suspends it for skinning.

learning to butcher rabbit
Here I am beginning to cut the hide along the inside of the rabbit’s leg.

To skin the rabbit we first cut through the skin all the way around the 4 ankles. Then cut a “V” along the inside of the rabbits’ hind legs with the center of the V meeting in the space between the anus and the tail. You have to work the hide away from the body using your hands. There’s a strong inclination for those new to skinning (like me) to want to use the knife to cut the skin away, but rabbits actually skin very easily just by using your fingers and hands to separate the hide from the carcass.

I was instructed to loosen the skin around the legs and tail then to cut that strip of hide between the anus and the tail. After that it’s very easy to pull the skin down over the body of the rabbit. It took quite a bit of muscle however to pull the skin off over the paws at the other end.

skinning rabbit
It wasn’t hard to pull the skin down over the carcass, but getting it over the paws required some muscle!

Remove the Innards

Once the skin was off we used sharp pruning shears to cut off the 4 feet and gutted the rabbit, which was easier than gutting a chicken (in my opinion) and reminded me very much of gutting a fish. You simply slice through the skin from sternum to crotch and scoop the insides out. Removing the anus was a little tricky and involved loosening the membranes around the bowels inside the pelvic bone.

how to butcher meat rabbits
Sonia demonstrated how to remove the bowels and anus from the rabbit carcass.

Apparently mammals differ from poultry in that there’s a distinct separation of the respiratory system from the digestive system by the diaphragm, so you have to pierce through that muscle lining to remove the lungs and heart.

Get it on Ice

Once the rabbit was skinned and gutted it was rinsed clean, bagged and put into the cooler to chill. Sonia stressed to our group that while we took our time with these rabbits, normally when she’s processing for customers she’s careful to keep all things clean, sanitize all surfaces, knives and equipment after each critter is processed, and she works quickly to get each carcass into the cooler as quickly as possible. These kinds of practices prevent contamination and ensures that bacteria does not have a chance to take hold in the meat so that no one gets sick.

It’s a Process

Jamie n her rabbit
Everyone was very proud of their new skills!

I admit I didn’t actually do the killing of any rabbits on this day. It’s not easy to take a life, even for most farmers and homesteaders. I had hoped I would be prepared to do the deed, but in the end I opted to watch, which was still difficult. I did however skin and gut a rabbit, so I’ve seen and experienced the entire process. I know now how it’s done and I’m confident that when the time comes I’ll be able to do it on my own.

These kinds of skillshare opportunities are a fantastic way for those who want to learn to connect with those who have the knowledge and experience to share. Sonia was gracious enough to invite a group of wannabes over to share with us what she has learned since she began keeping rabbis 5 years ago, and even sent us all home with a rabbit for dinner because she just did not need the meat.

Getting to know your local farmers is a great way to make friends and open the door to new and exciting opportunities. If you are a new or wannabe-homesteader or farmer, one of the best things you can do to increase your knowledge base is to get to know other homesteaders and farmers, ask questions and participate in the opportunities presented. Before you know it you’ll be up to your eyeballs in tomatoes to can, chickens to process for the freezer, and you’ll be throwing around terms like GMO and CSA like a pro!

There are more stories to come, so stay tuned folks!

New chicks!

new chicksA peeping, cheeping box addressed to Runamuk Acres came to the post office in Madison early Wednesday morning, and the postal worker called at quarter after six to let me know that my chicks had arrived. Twenty-six birds total: 7 silver laced wyandottes, 7 speckled sussex, 6 delawares, 5 barred rocks and 1 free exotic chick.

Despite having taking in a number of new birds over the last couple of months I still cannot meet the demand for eggs at market or within the community. I can’t tell you have often I’m asked, “Do you have any eggs?” and how frequently I have to turn customers away for lack of product.

I weighed my options, finances are tight, but if I didn’t get some fresh layers I’d be in worse shape next year. And thanks to a few workshop sales I had a few extra dollars, so I took a deep breath and placed the order with McMurray Hatchery (I’ve used them a few times and always had good results, and I like their selection too).

Since Willow’s accident I’ve been experiencing serious furry-four-legged-critter withdrawals. In the last year I’ve given up my sheep, goats, cats, and lost my dog…and though I still have honeybees and a variety of poultry, somehow they just don’t fill the void. Chicks may be poultry still, but they’re teeny and fluffy and I’ll take it! Lol.

Eagerly I dressed and drove the five miles into town, crossed the bridge over the Kennebec River, pulled in at the back of the post office and rang the buzzer. The box of cheeping chicks was handed over and I brought them home to place them in the prepared brooder space in the garage that is attached to the farmhouse. I wanted them close at hand while they’re small, for feeding and watering, health-checks, and just so that I could have easy access for cuddling little baby chicks.

With the exception of a 4-hour power outage Wednesday afternoon thanks to Hurricane Joaquin, which left the chicks without a heat lamp for the duration, everyone is looking great. All 26 chicks survived their ordeal through the US Postal system, and are eating, drinking and growing normally thus far.

Thank goodness for small fluffy chicks!

Making progress

Somehow it’s not hard to believe that it’s already almost mid-September. Perhaps other farmers feel the same sense of urgency that I do–from the moment that bare soil is exposed in the spring til the morning you wake to find the first killing frost upon the ground–there’s a sense of urgency–a sense that time is short and precious.

After 12 years working toward a farmish lifestyle, I think that’s probably the number one thing that I’ve learned. Time is short and we need to make the most of it. It’s a concept that has permeated my entire life.

I knew this was going to be a rough year–all things considered. But Jim Murphy’s farm was my saving grace. I don’t think I need to go on about how much I adore the place, but even miracles take a lot of work and for a few weeks there I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to pull it all off.

A farm–like any other business–takes a while to begin generating any significant amount of income. Runamuk does bring in some funds through sales of eggs and soaps and salves at the Madison Farmers’ Market, as well as through my work writing and editing, and from the workshops and bee-schools I teach, but it is not enough yet to cover the farmers’ living expenses. And with the busy season in the call center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds behind us, my hours were waning, so I took another seasonal job at the North Star Orchard in Madison.

in the big cooler at north star orchard
This is one of three large coolers in the barn at North Star Orchards.

For those who are not local, North Star is a small family owned and operated orchard that produces about 20,000 bushels of apples annually. One-third of those are sold directly to customers either from their farm-store or through pick-your-own activities. The other two-thirds of the apples are sold through Hannaford stores in central and western Maine. The farm sits on a hillside overlooking the Kennebec River and from some vantage points in the orchard there are fabulous views of our western mountains. You can click here to check out their website if you’re curious to learn more.

I could go on about the Dimmock family and what it’s like to work at the orchard–and I will, lol–but not today. That’s not what this post is about. Suffice it to say that it’s interesting work with good people, I’m learning more about yet another type of agriculture and I’m happy with it. Until Runamuk is making enough to sustain itself and me too, I need to work off the farm.

bronze heritage breed turkey
This is Thanksgiving the turkey–he is not named for dinner, but because he has been spared that fate!

We are making progress though. The bills are getting caught up, which is always a good feeling, my bee-school with the SAD 54 adult-education program is a go, and I’ve managed to sell a few spots in various on-farm workshops. Two spots were traded for a number of birds–18 chickens, 4 heritage-breed bronze turkeys, and an african grey goose named Michael. We added these birds to our existing flock in hopes of increasing egg production–there is high demand for locally produced eggs at our farmers’ market and myself and the other farmer there who sells eggs have not been able to satisfy the demand.

With the addition of so many new birds I was compelled to readdress the housing situation for the flock. The hoop-coop was full to capacity after we took in 4 laying hens from a co-worker at Johnny’s, and a prowling skunk had already devoured the 6 little chicks that had come with my broody hen, so the flock was a little wary of the structure–it was time to move them into the barn.

the barn at runamukMoving the birds to the barn meant another construction project, since the old barn is set up for dairy cows, with the wooden stalls and the old metal piping running along the ceiling. The old metal waterers and the old chains the farmer used to tie his cows to while they chewed hay and were milked are still in place. It’s a solid structure with rugged timber beams and a massive sliding barn door; like most old and neglected barns she needs some repairs, some updating, and some paint–but this old barn has lots of life left in her, and loads of history and character.

I bought a few two-by-fours, scavenged doors and hardware from around the farm, and my partner and I proceeded to divide the south-facing milking room into 3 sections simply by erecting walls of chicken wire. The back two “rooms” were suddenly chicken coops with the addition of roosts–saplings we cut from the forest and screwed across the tops of the cow-stalls. We brought the nesting boxes from the hoop-coop and moved our chickens into the barn under the cover of night. The new laying hens, turkeys and the goose arrived about a week later and we moved them into the second coop. I hope that the third space we created will house sheep next winter, but for now it is just storage space.updates to this old barnIt’s going on three weeks now though, since we added the new birds to the mix and while I had expected a drop in production in all of the birds after being moved and integrated–I had hoped production would be in full swing by now and I’m just not seeing the increase in egg-collection that I need. To make matters worse, I’m beginning to suspect that we may have an egg-eater in the flock…something that’s going to have to be dealt with in short order!

birds in the barn
For the winter the flock will have this fenced exercise yard, but the plan is to invest in the electric poultry netting so that they can be on pasture through the summer months.

barn updatesThe birds are happy with the accommodations though–they like the roosts we put in, but they prefer to sleep on the metal dairy piping. They’re getting plenty of treats and goodies from the garden in the way of bugs and veggies–and while the garden has been something of a challenge this year, I’ve still managed to produce some quality vegetables and am working to preserve the harvest. The potatoes have been dug and are curing in the garage before they go into the root cellar for storage; the tomatoes are in the freezer awaiting the day that I will turn them into sauce, and this weekend I will process the green beans.

It may be painstakingly slow, but Runamuk is gaining ground once again and I am pleased with that. The stress of the financial crunch has been addressed, and our attention has turned toward winter preparations–it wont be long before we wake up to that first frost on the ground! Stay tuned folks!