Under Contract AGAIN!

hive house

The road to farm-ownership has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride, and it’s a huge relief to have a property under contract again. After letting go of the Swinging Bridge Farm, my realtor, Leah J. Watkins, and I toured the property at 344 School Street last Wednesday. I decided on the spot to make an offer for it, so Leah drafted the paperwork and we sent it to the Seller later that evening. Yesterday my offer was accepted and just like that I am back in the game!

hive house
The house at 344 School Street. Photo courtesy: Google.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for me. I was already stressed because of the downward spiral my loan for the Swinging Bridge Farm was taking, and then my older son, William was sent to Portland where he ultimately ended up having his gallbladder removed!

Emergency Surgery

William is high functioning Autistic, and studies show that those children are more likely to have digestive issues, but he began to have these “stomach pains” infrequently over the last year or so. He’s always had some issues with constipation, but these “pains” were something else. Something alarming.

At first we tried eliminating dairy, thinking maybe he was lactose intolerant, which would explain his constipation. But the pains still came─not all the time, and sometimes worse than others. It all came to a head at the beginning of the month, around the same time that my loan for SBF was tanking. William hadn’t “gone” in a week and he’d spent a weekend in pain; Keith (my ex-husband and the father of my children) took the boy to the Emergency Room.

william in the hospital
William was jaundiced and yellow-eye prior to his surgery: here he’s upset that Mom insisted on a pre-surgery picture…

On Friday an ultrasound at Reddington Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan revealed that William had gallstones! And one of them had obstructed his bile duct. His doctor sent us to the Maine General Medical Center in Portland, where they have a very good pediatric staff. That Friday night William was put under so that doctors could perform a laproscopic procedure to eliminate the offending gallstone.

The next morning we consented to allow the gastroenterologist to remove the gallbladder altogether, as William would have inevitably suffered relapses related to his many remaining gallstones. Having suffered from gallstones myself I could not let my baby continue to suffer from the pain that can flare up as a result. William has always been a very good eater─he naturally regulates his own diet so that he’s eating diverse array of all food-groups. I’ve never had to fight with him to eat his vegetables, or to try the fish; he likes it all. So I was fairly confident that diet alone would not save my baby. And since he’d always been a bit bound up, the possible side-effect of looser stools was less of a threat than the promise of regularity for William.

On Saturday morning at 7:30 William was wheeled back into the operating room. He was brave and affable the whole time. I could see on Friday night that he just wanted the pain to be over, and then by Saturday morning he was enjoying the extra attention lavished upon him in the hospital. By Sunday he was back to his usual moody-self.

Hit With the Flu

Meanwhile, William’s father and I both came down with the flu while we were at the hospital. Keith succumbed first; laid low by the time we woke up on Saturday morning at the boy’s bedside. After William came through his second procedure safely I sent Keith home to his bed and stayed on at the hospital with William while he was under observation in his recovery room in the Pediatric Short-Stay Unit of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital─the pediatric wing at Maine General. Saturday night I was taken down with the chills and a fever, I had to ask the nurse to bring me another blanket, but I was still cold. The kindly nurses felt so bad for me that they brought me some ibuprofen to help with my fever and after that I was able to function enough to get my child through the remainder of his ordeal.

Thankfully it wasn’t a severe strain of the flu, but it morphed into a nasty cold that came with a horrendous cough─and conjunctivitis! When I showed up at Johnny’s the following Tuesday for my usual shift my supervisors took one look at my glowing red eyes and sent me to see a doctor to make sure I wasn’t going to die. They knew how stressed I’d been about the deal for SBF and were worried that my blood pressure might be causing a hemorrhage.

Turns out it was conjunctivitis.

Processing my Break-Up With SBF

I was laid low again when I came to the realization that I was going to have to let go of the Swinging Bridge Farm. I admit that I was utterly heartbroken and defeated. My friends and colleagues, even acquaintances online whom I’ve never met in real life, supported me. I worked through the worst of it, answering the phone at Johnny’s, glad for the distraction as I processed the information and weighed my options.

I considered a whole range of possibilities, from working full-time at Johnny’s to taking a year off from farming─I even considered giving up farming altogether. Big failures have a tendancy to make us question our choices, and so I did. In the end I came to the conclusion that I’d come too far to give up now, but that it was time to make some compromises. I want to continue farming and supporting my community in the way that I have, but I also want my kids to have the home I’ve promised them.

There was just one other property available in my area and price-range. The strange-looking mansard house on School Street in New Portland. This house had been available last fall too, but I didn’t love it the way I did the Swinging Bridge Farm.

Even now I’m still healing from letting SBF go. It wasn’t so much about the house─it was the trees and the rock walls that I fell in love with there. I loved the sheer wildness of the neglected old farm, the mature forest and those gnarly old apple trees. I have a thing for trees and for the history glimpsed in the rockwalls that criss-cross the landscape here in Maine. On a deeply personal level SBF spoke to me and I’ll always remember the way those woods made me feel.

Good Business Sense

However I have to admit that from a business and family stand point, the property at 344 School Street checks all the boxes:

  • Barn for assembling & storing bee-hive equipment.
  • Garage for storing garden equipment & tractor.
  • Pasture for chickens.
  • Open, level acreage for gardens.
  • Public water makes it easy to get Home Processing License for bottling honey.
  • Dishwasher─another plus for getting Home Processing License.
  • A whopping 5 bedrooms, 2 living rooms, and an office space too! Gives my family plenty of space to settle in.
  • House in good repair: means I can spend more time farming and less time fixing the dwelling to make it suitable for my family to live in.
  • Road frontage and proximity to heavily traveled Route 16 makes my farm more accessible to customers.

It’s only a third of the acreage I would have had at SBF, but still a respectable chunk, and perhaps better suited to my needs─if not my heart.

Under Contract AGAIN!

hive house
She’s in great condition and offers lots of space; she’s growing on me! Photo courtesy Google.

It took the Seller 6 days to respond to my offer. There was the same initial confusion regarding the FSA loan process that we’d seen the Fletchers balk over when I made a move for SBF. There is no “pre-qualification” with the Farm Service Agency, and there are a number of hurdles to be overcome in the ordeal: the Financial Eligibility, the Environmental Assessment, and the Property Appraisal. It’s a lot of paperwork and red tape with the government agricultural office, and frankly it’s intimidating.

Eventually the Seller came around and said yes. I received the Sale Contract yesterday morning and immediately sent it over to Nathan, my FSA Agent. An hour later I was in the Somerset County USDA office in Skowhegan signing the application for the financing of the 344 School Street property.

Essentially I’m back to square one: applying all over again for the loan, but with a nice head-start on the paperwork, and a promise from Nathan to speed things along as best he can. Don’t get too carried away though─this is the government we’re talking about, and appraisers are apparently booked out til May now that the FSA office is coming into it’s busy-season. We can’t close til we get the Appraisal done, so we may very well be looking at a 3-4 month wait before I can move Runamuk to her forever-farm property.

Gearing Up

Meanwhile, I’ve been gearing up for another season─making soap when I’m not at Johnny’s, as well as ordering replacement colonies and supplies for the apiary, onion plants, seed potatoes and “just a few” packets of seeds. If all this works out, I’ll likely be moving in the midst of Swarm Season: the beekeeper’s busiest time of year, but I’m hoping to wrangle a few friends into helping this time around.

Runamuk’s #GreatFarmMove; #theFinalChapter; will be the end of one book, and the beginning of a whole new sequel in my life. I know it’s going to be hard work. I know it’ll be exhausting. unending. work. But I look forward to the labors, and the inevitable blood, sweat and tears─because I’ll finally be able to build upon something year after year, for the next 40 years of my life. I look forward to finally being able to put down roots and to being able to cultivate the soil where I live. And I especially look forward to promoting bee-friendly ideals, and sustainable living for a better and brighter tomorrow.

When I think about all the work ahead of me upon Closing, I can’t help but square my shoulders and lift my chin in determination. I look the challenge that is farming right in the eye and say: Bring. It. On.

Check back soon for more updates on my journey toward farm-ownership! It’s a new season full of new opportunities and exciting adventures to come! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly in your in-box!

Chimney Inspection & Appraisal Done!

moose sentry

The FSA hasn’t assigned a date for Closing on the sale of the Swinging Bridge Farm yet, but I can feel that day drawing closer. So far I’ve managed to overcome every hurdle, jump through every hoop set out for me. Last week I got the chimney inspection done, and just yesterday the property was assessed by the Appraisor─the final obstacle in the FSA’s long and drawn out loan process. If I had to wager on it, I’d guess Closing will take place in early February. OMG!

moose sentry
This mounted moose head stands guard in the woodshed at the Swinging Bridge Farm.

The New Portland farm had been winterized back in the fall─the water had been turned off and all of the pipes associated with the plumbing had been flushed to prevent them from breaking. There’s no heat running, and the electricity is off. The old farmhouse is sitting there waiting as patiently for me, as I am for it.

Because none of the utilities are currently running, the FSA opted to waive the inspections of those systems, and instead Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent working on my case, spoke with various contractors who had worked on the place over the last decade. He extrapolated from those conversations the conditions of the electric, plumbing, and heating systems and documented it for the FSA’s records.

That just left me responsible for the chimney inspection.

I waited til after the holidays were finished before setting about tracking down someone to do the job, and then it took several attempts to get someone on the line. Did you know that a volunteer fire department can’t inspect your chimney? After contacting the local Madison Fire Department and learning they couldn’t help me, I reached out to the Skowhegan Fire Department and several chimney sweeps before Percy York of Skowhegan finally agreed to do the job for me.

Percy York was an older gentleman, perhaps in his seventies, shorter and squat, barrel-chested and a little bow-legged. We met in Madison and he followed me up to SBF last Wednesday. Upon arrival he got down out of his truck to join me in the driveway, grumpily announcing, “I thot we was never gonna git he-ah!”

I laughed it off good-naturedly, but he reiterated, “If I’d known it was this far out I never would have taken the job.”

I had warned him on the phone that it was located in New Portland, though I suppose the address might actually be considered part of “West New Portland”. Regardless he was there and so I just thanked him sincerely for trucking way out there for me and told him I had the $50 cash we’d agreed on if he still wanted to look at the chimney.

He did look at the chimney─both of them. There are 2 chimneys at SBF: the original chimney, which runs straight up through the center of the main house, and a newer chimney Mr. Fletcher (previous owner) had had installed in the summer-kitchen/woodshed end of the house. The new chimney is fairly pristine, since Mr. Fletcher had scarcely used the thing, but the old one has been sealed up and is no longer usable. In fact, the brick of that old chimney is crumbling with age, and will likely need to be removed in the next 10 years.

Mr. York, the chimney sweep, also pointed out that the existing woodstove attached to the newer chimney wasn’t air tight and should either be re-sealed, or the woodstove should be replaced. As well as the fact that I would need a hearth pad. I had suspected as much.

There’s a secondary heat source at SBF─a propane-fueled monitor heater. However I still want the use of a woodstove, so I’ll be on the hunt for a second-hand woodstove. If you’re a local reader and can hook me up with a good deal on a solid woodstove, feel free to drop me a line!

The Appraisal however, was not my responsibility. That was done at the request of the FSA, and could have taken up to 3 months to get the necessary report, which is crucial to the loan-request. As a federal office, the FSA has to recruit an outside contractor for an unbiased assessment of the property. The government will not pay one penny more than the actual value of the property, so the price I agreed to pay for it has to be equal to or greater than what this appraisor values the place at. If his appraisal come in lower than that $174.5 I agreed to, it could very well be the end of the road for me. I would have to hope that the Seller would renegotiate with me, or I could try to secure a secondary micro-loan to make up the difference.

In a surprising twist, the appraisal job was award within just a couple of weeks of being open to public bids. The job went to one Jarrett Goold with Farm Credit East. He met Leah Watkins (my spunky and awesome realtor) and myself at SBF yesterday to conduct his inspection, and set about his business with clipboard and camera in hand.

He paused to ask questions about various features: which chimney was the good one, whether or not the old house was insulated, what kind of flooring ran through the house, was there dry wall or was it all plaster? how many bedrooms did I consider the place to be (There’s an open landing at the top of the stairs that could be considered a living or storage space. I intend to use it as a bedroom though, which means it will be a 4-bedroom house.)?

Mr. Goold scoped out the newer poured-cement foundation and the sill that old Mr. Fletcher had had replaced under the main structure of the house, the water heater, and the old double-hung windows. Then Leah and I showed him the attached woodshed and the inside of the barn, where some of the old beams had been replaced to shore the thing up.

Before we parted ways, Mr. Goold shared with us that the land alone, with it’s 150 acres of mature tree growth, was worth nearly what I’d agreed to pay for the property. That meant that once he figured the house into it, his appraisal should come in at or above that $174.5 figure. What a relief it was to hear him say so!

He told us he’d have the report in to the FSA by next week.

Once the Appraisal is in, then it’s time for the Lawyers. I’ve asked Ernie Hilton to do the legal work on my behalf. If you’ve been following along, you might recall that Ernie and Gwen Hilton have supported my ambitions from the very start. They’ve hosted my apiary on their property for years, have been devout patrons for Runamuk and the Madison Farmers’ Market, hosted my FarmRaiser party in their fantabulous old barn there in Starks, and have been pillars of wisdom, inspiration and support for me. It seemed only fitting that Ernie should be the one to represent me in this transaction of a lifetime.

Ernie will have to research the property title, draw up the contract, and coordinate with the FSA the Closing on this sale. I think it’s fairly safe to say we will be Closing sometime in February. That’s just a few weeks away!

Something amazing is about to happen so stay tuned! And then watch Runamuk grow! Subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly in your inbox so that you’ll never miss a thing!