Deliveries on the Back-Roads of Maine

deliveries on the backroads of maine

I have to admit that deliveries on the back roads of Maine have long been a favored pastime for this farmer. Countless little roads thread their way across the landscape, beckoning the traveler off the 2-lane highways and deeper into the heart of the state. Here are the places where Maine’s legacy still exists─a hold-over from days gone by. Steeped in history and tradition, these back-roads fascinate me. Delivering Runamuk’s farm-goods to households in these rural and wild parts of Maine is never a chore, but a privilege I am grateful for.

deliveries on the backroads of maine
One of Maine’s many backroads.

Roaming the Backroads

When I was a girl, my mother would occasionally load her 3 children─myself, my younger brother and my baby sister─into the beat-up yellow station wagon our family owned. She drove the car out of town, stopping along the way at Casey’s Market in Anson to buy ham Italian sandwiches (another Maine tradition) and other picnic provisions. Then she drove northward, away from the cities and towns, into the depths of the Maine wilderness. Sometimes we went swimming at Embden Pond. Sometimes we were fishing little streams off an unknown bridge on a dirt road somewhere in Moscow or Rangeley. Other times we picked blueberries behind an abandoned farmhouse in Phillips, or blackberries under the powerlines in New Vineyard. These are treasured memories for me, and probably my favorite memories of my mother.

Roaming the backroads became a habit when my eldest son, William, was a baby. Sometimes a ride in the car was the only way to get him to nap. The backroad drives became a means of escape when life became rocky for me, and I spent countless hours rolling down one dirt road or another, searching for my forever farmhouse.

While progress comes to southern and central Maine, creeping ever northward into rural areas, off the beaten path old Maine still exists. Forgotten farmhouses in varying conditions are scattered in unknown river valleys. Above them on a high hill or mountainside, little log cabins complete with outhouse are hidden in the dense forests.

stonewall on the backroads of maine
The stonewalls criss-crossing the landscape were constructed by hand by early farmers to Maine!

Maine’s Legacy

Stone walls running along the roadside speak of a legacy almost forgotten, while massive maples act as sentries, lining the roads. Gnarled branches spread out overhead as you pass beneath the trees. Sometimes that legacy has been maintained, the fields preserved, the old farmhouse in-tact. Other times the forest has reclaimed the fields where livestock once grazed, and all that remains of the farmhouse is a stone foundation in the earth only visible during spring or fall, when the forest vegetation has died back, allowing the secrets of the landscape to be seen.

In these parts there still exists many family homesteads with backyard gardens and a coop full of chickens. Here people still go smelting and eat fiddleheads in the spring. They make strawberry-rhubarb pies and can jars of raspberry jam. In the fall they hunt to put meat in their freezer and during the winter they go ice fishing. People in these parts are still connected to the land and Maine’s rich agricultural legacy thrives even in this modern society. These are my people. This is where I belong.

backroad adventures
Where in Maine?

Committed to Local Food

When they were younger, egg-deliveries were the perfect excuse to get out of the house without the kids and take a drive down a backroad. As Runamuk grew, I gave up the deliveries in favor of setting up at the local farmers’ market. Getting back to delivery over the course of this winter has been wonderful. Ironically, it prepared my farm in advance for the coronavirus pandemic. I was offering delivery before delivery became a necessity, and I really haven’t had to change much about how I do business.

In fact, more than 20 households have enrolled to participate in Runamuk’s CSA Farm-Share program. These people have committed to local food─they’ve committed to Runamuk─and they have such faith in my abilities that they’ve even pre-paid to have dibs on the food I am producing. That is a huge compliment to this humble farmer, and something that is not taken lightly. It is now my responsibility to ensure that those families have access to high-quality, fresh foods every week. This is serious business.

I’ve been preparing for this all winter, though─ramping up production and putting different pieces in place. I am ready and eager to do the work. Shelves upon shelves of seedlings sit under lights inside the farmhouse waiting for the ground to warm up. This past weekend I was finally able to get the hoop-house closed in to allow for expanded seedling production. These plants will fill my expanded gardens, and will eventually fill bellies within my local community.

farmer sam card
This is a card from one of the families I serve.      3yo Rory loves my blueverry muffins!

To me, there is no higher honor than to be someone’s farmer. It truly is my privilege to be able to stock the shelves at the Runamuk farmstand, to make these deliveries on the backroads of Maine, and to feed and nurture the people and places I hold most dear. Who’s your farmer?

Note: The deadline to enroll in Runamuk’s CSA Farm-Share program is Thursday, April 30th.
Click here for details and to read about the special perks I’m offering members. Those who are interested in participating, but are either waiting for tax returns, stimulus checks, or are simply strapped for cash, please don’t hesitate to contact the farm to ask about late-payments, payment arrangements, potential bartering opportunities, or work-shares. I really want to make high-quality, fresh foods accessible to as many households as possible. That is my commitment to my local community.

Thanks for following along with the story of the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm! Subscribe by email to receive the latest blog-posts directly to your inbox. OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Growing Food and Community at Runamuk

farm delivery program reviews

Over the course of the winter months, this farmer has been hyper-focused on growing food and community here at Runamuk. I spent the winter just doing the work─getting my affairs in order so that Runamuk can have a successful 2020 growing season. As a result, things on the blog-front have been fairly quiet. I wouldn’t presume to think that my mundane blog-posts have been missed by anyone out there, but I have certainly missed writing during these last few months. Sometimes it is necessary though, to take a step back to focus on what’s really important, and I’m glad I did─there have been some positive developments here at Runamuk.

runamuk farmhouse
The Runamuk Acres farmhouse earlier in the winter.

It’ll be 2 years come July since Runamuk landed in the obscure village of New Portland, Maine. I’m not too proud to admit that it was a big leap for this farmer, and my first year was quite a struggle. Bootstrapping my way to farm-ownership meant I came here with zero-savings, and what little capital I had was eaten up by investments in infrastructure during my first year. November and December were pretty dicey─financially speaking─but once this region got its’ first big snowstorm, this farm became host to a good many skiers to Sugarloaf. I was able to regain my footing, and even get ahead a little.

The FarmstayBnB & Farm-Fresh Breakfasts

The 2 guest rooms here are listed with AirBnB as a “farmstayBnB”. Accommodations are pretty simple. I don’t have much to offer in the way of luxury. Guests get an immaculately clean room with a ready-made bed, and a farm-fresh breakfast made-to-order, for the affordable rate of $50 a night.

airbnb review
Review on AirBnB for Runamuk’s farmstayBnB.

I’m very up front about this being a working farm as opposed to a hobby-farm or a gentleman’s farm. The farming must go on even when guests are on-site. Even with an honest description on AirBnB, there have been some guests who did not realize what they were signing on for. It dawns on them about the time they walk into the dinning room. There, my giant chalkboard is mounted to the wall, with an extensive to-do list for each aspect of the farm: livestock, apiary, garden, homestead, etc. That’s when they realize that this is a real farm, and I am 100% serious about my work.

Most folks were intrigued by the farming and I believe they took away a new appreciation for life on small farms. A few were less than impressed with what I had to offer. Yet, I always do my best to make folks feel welcomed and comfortable while they’re here. I know full well my lifestyle isn’t for everyone, so I don’t take it personally when guests prefer accommodations with a private bathroom, or a TV in their room. For the most part though, I think even those guests who were less than impressed with the accommodations left with a favorable impression following my fabulous, farm-fresh breakfasts. Good food can win over even the most stubborn hearts.

Growing Food & Community Through Delivery

With the farmstayBnB covering the bills, I’ve been able to focus on growing food and community through Runamuk’s delivery service. Despite the fact that Runamuk does not yet have the capacity to grow vegetables year-round─or even to extend our season for vegetable production─I’ve offered my community the things I can produce in the depths of winter: eggs, pea shoots, bread and other baked goods. I still have beeswax soap available too.

farm delivery program reviews
Just 2 of the glowing reviews Runamuk has received for it’s weekly delivery program!

The delivery program helped to maintain the momentum I gained last summer at the Kingfield Farmers’ Market. This has allowed me to grow the farm’s income even during the hardest part of the year: winter. Each week I post the list of available products from Runamuk to our facebook page. I also email the list to customers who have subscribed to the Runamuk mailing list. Sometimes I post the list to the community pages for the towns I serve─just to remind folks that we are here offering fresh, locally produced foods and products.

The bread was a huge hit, and muffins and cookies are always popular. I gained lots of new customers over the course of the winter, and even managed to turn a few households on to pea shoots. In Kingfield, I picked up a couple of commercial accounts with local restaurants: the Orange Cat Cafe loves my Honey-Pecan granola, and the Kingfield Woodsman raves about my breads.

It got to be that I was baking twice a week. Some of those sessions became 36 or 48-hour marathons with little sleep and a frenzied attempt to keep my delivery schedule. During one such marathon, I realized the baking was going to be too much time in the kitchen once the growing season got underway.

CSA Farm-Share Program

Ultimately, my goal is to feed families and community-members high-quality, nutritious foods─mostly vegetables. I believe the pathway to a healthier lifestyle and a healthier global ecosystem is a diet that is largely plant-based. In light of that revelation, I opted to limit acces to my baked goods and to grow my community through Runamuk’s CSA Farm-Share Program.

oatmeal bread
My oatmeal bread is hugely popular with local customers!

Access to my handmade bread, baked fresh each week has become one of the biggest perks of becoming a supporting member of this farm. Several of my dedicated patrons have enrolled just so they can continue to receive their weekly bread deliveries. Other CSA-members are holding out for the fresh vegetables that will be available once the growing season gets underway.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many direct-to-consumer farmers (farmers like myself) are seeing an increase in sales. I have also welcomed a number of new customers and CSA-members to the farm. To better meet the needs of my community during this difficult time, I’ve extended the deadline for enrollment for my CSA Farm-Share program to the end of April. I’m offering flexible payment options for my low-income community members. Just ask.

Click here to learn more about Runamuk’s CSA Farm-Shares
or to enroll via payment through PayPal.

Farm Stand Open Every Saturday

With local food in such high demand, I’ve decided to open my farm stand early this season. Beginning this Saturday, April 11th, Runamuk’s self-service farm stand will be open every Saturday from 8-2. I’m still working to get things organized, but the farm stand is set up on the enclosed front porch of the farmhouse. I managed to trade farm-credit for a small refrigerator/freezer that I’ve stocked with eggs and breads and pea shoots. In a few more weeks vegetables will be available there too.

I want to encourage the local community to visit the farm─not only to pick up fresh foods and products produced locally─but to connect with the farm that is producing their food. The animals here are all super-friendly and love visitors. During the growing season the gardens and the apiary are fascinating places for observation. Soon I will even have several newly constructed picnic tables on-site.

What’s more, this property boasts a half-mile trail (1 mile round-trip) that runs through the 10-acre pasture behind the farmhouse, into the forest to a secluded wetland area that I have dubbed the “Enchanted Wetland”. I have maps and scavenger hunts available, and the trail is clearly marked. It is my hope that locals will take the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature even for a short time. It’s hugely important for our children to learn more about this natural world around us. We really are all connected on this incredible planet we call home.

Stay Tuned for Up-Coming Stories!

lambs at runamuk
Stay tuned for the up-coming story of my first-ever lambs!

I took the winter off from blogging to better focus on doing the work here to prepare Runamuk for a successful 2020 season. I’m glad I did too, however, the writer in me is ready to once again share stories about farm-life and my journey as a woman who farms. Stay tuned for up-coming stories including (but not limited to) the story of my first-ever lambing-season!!

Thanks for following along with the story of the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm! Subscribe by email to receive the latest blog-posts directly to your inbox. OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Farming as a Way Forward for Maine’s Economically Depressed Regions

dharma farm

Not too long ago I attended a town meeting in Madison in which I told selectmen that I see farming as a way forward for our economically depressed region of Maine. A new zoning ordinance had been passed in Madison that affects agriculture in my hometown, and I was there in official capacity as a representative of the Madison Farmers’ Market. It is my hope that people will see the rationale of this concept. We can revitalize our rural economies through agriculture. Farming IS a viable way forward; I truly believe this.

dharma farm
Jeff Knox of Dharma Farm in Washington, ME. Photo credit: Dharma Farm. Find them online today!

Even in the midst of the local foods movement, it’s difficult to persuade the mainstream public that farming is a viable option for regional growth, and I doubt my words bore much weight with Madison’s Board of Selectmen. For far too long society has viewed farming as work that any simpleton can do; work that involves long hours of toil and drudgery, and results in little pay and a low-quality of life. Farming has not been a career choice parents generally wanted for their children. I’m taking this opportunity to present 7 reasons why I believe in farming as the way forward for Maine’s economically depressed regions.

1. Support Local Economies

Supporting family farms and local community food systems is a powerful strategy for jumpstarting our fragile economy and strengthening communities across America. Agriculture is a frequently overlooked source of economic development and job creation.

The economic impact of the nation’s food producers stretch far beyond the limits of their farms and ranches. Food systems link farmers with other enterprises, from input providers for seed and fertilizers, to retail chains, restaurants and everything in between. Every year consumers spend over $1 trillion on food grown by US farmers and ranchers, yet the real value of agriculture to the nation lies much deeper.

Farmers are the backbone of our nation, the first rung on the economic ladder; studies show that when farms thrive, Main Street businesses and local communities thrive too. Consider farming as a way forward.

2. Cultivate Food Security

farming as a way forward
Harvest-time at Daisy Chain Farm, Belfast, Maine. Photo credit: Daisy Chain Farm. Find them online!

Studies show that access to healthy, affordable nutritional food is an issue in urban areas, as well as rural regions. Michelle Kaiser, researcher in the School of Social Work in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, says:

People don’t think of rural areas as places without healthy foods. However, many people live miles from the nearest store, and this makes them less likely to buy fresh, perishable foods because they buy groceries less often. In urban areas, many people buy their food from restaurants or convenience stores, where nutritious food is scarce. Even if there is a nearby grocery store, many people don’t have access to reliable transportation to those stores.

Increasing the availability of whole-foods, such as fruits and vegetables, enables people to avoid processed, unhealthy foods.

What’s more, local food production enables a country or region to overcome food insecurity and recover from emergencies. When disaster strikes, distribution channels can fail and supermarkets can become out-of-stock in short order. By focusing on farming as a way forward, we’re investing in our own long-term food security.

3. Stewardship Opportunities

A 2012 report by the UN titled “Food & Agriculture: the Future of Sustainability” suggests that significant investment in small and medium-sized farms is needed to improve the overall health and viability of our food system worldwide.

Small family farms have been shown to be the most effective, per acre, at ecological stewardship, biodiversity and production of nutrition. These small farms are better able to maintain the quality of soil, air and water, compared to large scale agriculture, which degrades soil and water quality in the short term, reducing the biological health of the soil ecosystem, and also making them more vulnerable to disease, drought, crisis and collapse.

Farming key to reducing greenhouse gases and improving our overall health with better food options. It’s time to support these small farms and invest in local agriculture.

4. Increased Self-Reliance

Fostering local agriculture increases a community’s self-reliance and reduces our overall dependence on Industry. Small farms are teaching facilities where people can learn that there’s something everyone can do right now, to improve their own self-sufficiency and live healthier lives. Your local farmers can teach you everything from how to cook the vegetables and meats you buy at the farmers’ market, to how to bake your own bread, how to compost, and how to grow your own food─farmers are always willing to share their knowledge and skill-sets.

Increased self-reliance allows us to avoid more processed foods, live healthier, more meaningful lives, and save money too. These skills give us independence from big Industry, which doesn’t always have our best interests at heart, and affords communities a measure of security knowing that if something were to happen tomorrow to prevent the distribution of food and goods to the supermarkets, we have the capability of providing for ourselves and those around us. Farming as a way forward allows us more independence.

5. Build Community

Scientific studies indicate that food, specifically when shared and experienced with others, has also shown to benefit our minds, enrich our feelings toward other people, and it can increase people’s trust and cooperation with one another. Social psychologist, Shankar Vedantam states:

“To eat the same foods as another person suggests that we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies. People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they are. And then trust, cooperation—these are just the consequences of feeling close to someone.”

It may not seem like a ground-breaking discovery, but sharing food with other people can have longstanding effects and should be utilized as a powerful tool in our community-building arsenal. Food has an amazing ability to draw us together. We all have powerful memories of being cooked for, and those acts of generosity and love run deep within us─they inspire us, and compel us to reciprocate. Through food we can foster relationships, motivate people and build community.

6. Vibrant Farming Community

farming as a way forward for economically depressed regions
Seedling production at Bumbleroot Organic Farm, Windham, Maine. Photo credit: Bumbleroot Organic Farm.  Find them online!

Maine has a longstanding agricultural legacy that pre-dates the arrival of European settlers, and at one time our great state was considered the bread-basket of the nation. Since the 17th century farming has changed significantly, but agriculture has continued to be a driving force in our state, with new farms being started at a rate nearly four times faster than the national average. Maine also boasts one of the highest organic-to-conventional farm ratios in the United States.

We’re fortunate to have a robust farmer support system, with MOFGA─the nation’s oldest and largest organic farming organization, the Maine Farmland Trust, and a surprising lack of partisan preoccupation when it comes to agriculture in the state-houses. Why shouldn’t we build upon this industry that’s already established and thriving in our state?

7. Land-Rich

Maine is a land-rich state. With the exception of the coastal region and some scattered cities in the southern and central part of the state, we’re still very rural, with large tracts of land yet undeveloped. Land that had once been farmed has since been abandoned and is just waiting for a good steward to breathe life back into it. Entire fields where dairy cows once grazed have been forgotten, and in many cases are merely bush-hogged annually to keep the forest at bay.

Many homeowners own more than half an acre, and some families possess larger tracts that are passed down from one generation to the next. If you were born and stayed here in Maine, there’s a good chance you know someone who has acreage where opportunity for farming exists. This is a huge resource that Mainers can utilize to generate income for themselves─if only they would consider farming as a way forward.

Consider Farming as a Way Forward

Society’s long-standing perception of farming as a poor career choice is pervasive, but slowly beginning to crumble thanks to the modern agricultural movement. There’s a new generation of farmers on the horizon─they come to farming from all walks of life, and a broad spectrum of demographics and interests. Not just young people, but parents seeking a better lifestyle for their families, older folks looking to make a change in their lives or to start something new; they’re an incredibly diverse group. 

These new-age farmers want to make a difference in the world; they’re into the idea of clean food and living more sustainably on the land. People are finally beginning to realize that our natural resources in this world are not going to last forever; these new-generation farmers want to do their part─not only to conserve what we have for future generations─but also because it’s the right thing to do.

Who are we to think ourselves so superior to every other life-form on this planet that we can justify the consumption of Earth’s resources? How can we legitimize the ravaging of the planet that we share with other creatures? And what gives us the right in the here-and-now to disregard those who will come after we are gone? What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? and would our descendants thank us for it if they ever could?

If we search our hearts, I think we all know the answers to those questions. No, you’ll likely never get rich serving the land and community, but farming IS a viable way forward, and I urge you to consider it. I urge our elected officials not to overlook the possibilities that agriculture holds for our rural regions. I ask parents not to disregard the opportunities that farming might offer your children. And I beseech people young and old to consider farming─on any scale─to make a difference in this world.

What do YOU think? Feel free to weigh in; leave a comment below!

How is the Cost of Farmland Affecting Beginning Farmers?

farmland

Having spent several years now pouring over real estate listings in search of my own forever farm, I have become painfully aware of the cost of farmland. Farmland prices are rising, and good land for farming is becoming increasingly scarce. This has serious implications for the future of the nation’s farm economy and farm system, but also for America’s agricultural landscape. As the older generation of farmers begins to wane, what will happen to their farmland? How will new farmers access land to grow the food that feeds our country? And how can we preserve farmland for future generations?

Barriers to farming

how is the cost of farmland affecting beginning farmersAccording to a 2009 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, beginning farmers face 2 primary obstacles:

  • High start-up costs
  • Lack of available land for purchase/rent

The study also found that beginning farmers tend to earn less income from their farms. They have more off-farm income and are less likely to rent farmland than established farmers. This is because rental agreements are inherently less secure than land-ownership, discouraging investment on the part of the farmer.

A 2011 report on beginning farmers “Building a Future with Farmers” by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition came up with similar results: 78% of respondants rated lack of capital as the biggest obstacle. 68% cited finding affordable land to purchase or landowners willing to make long-term agreements. 40% reported access to credit, including small operating loans.

Respondants found these barriers to be more challenging than business planning or marketing skills, finding good education and training.

The researchers from the National Young Farmers’ Coalition interviewed representatives from 30 different organizations around the country who work with farmers and found that the one issue raised by virtually everyone was access to land. The representatives interviewed pointed to many resources to help with financing and credit, farm production, and business and marketing skills, but few actual resources exist to help new farmers gain access to land.

Note: For more on the challenges beginning farmers face, check out this article from Choices magazine.

Rising farmland prices

rowcover at johnnys selected seeds albion
Crop field at Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ research farm in Albion, Maine.

Studies show that most farmers acquire land by purchasing from a non-relative. Therefore, trends in the farmland market are critical to entry opportunities and the cost of farmland. This explains why beginning farmers are more likely to not own land.

Between 2000 and 2008 farmland values have doubled in the United States. Those values are still rising today, driven by foreign investors and development pressures.

According the the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the average farmland real estate value in  2010 was $2,140 per acre, and in 2017 the price per acre for farmland is $2,728. But the agricultural value of land is dependent upon the quality of it’s soil─not it’s development possibilities─and how much income it can produce for farmers.

Due to historical program eligibility conditions, land used for cash grains such as soybean, corn, and rice, are more likely to have an agricultural base than other types of farmland uses (vegetables, fruit, nuts, livestock, etc.). Owning farmland with a base encourages established farmers to continue farming.

The ERS reports that since 2009, US farmland values have been supported by relatively strong farm earnings fueled by record high commodity prices. When coupled with historically low interest rates, the market is able to support higher land values. This is a boon for those exiting the industry, but just the opposite for those trying to buy in.

Lost farmland

old farmland and barn with wild flowers
1.3 million acres of land once dedicated to the cultivation of food, has either been lost to the Maine woods or to development.

In the 1800’s Maine had 6.5 million acres of open farmland. Everybody farmed then. Maine was such a vast state with homesteads so spread out across the country side that residents had no choice but to grow their own food. Since then a total of 1.3 million (or 22.4%) acres of land once dedicated to the cultivation of food has either been lost to the Maine woods or to development.

The phenomenon has accelerated in recent years. Economists detail how much more valuable that farmland would be if it were rezoned for development. Large tracts of land are being bought up and broken into smaller lots for housing. This has a serious impact on the farming industry,  leaving beginning farmers fewer options when it comes to finding farmland. It also makes securing that land much more difficult.

Additionally, the farmland retirement program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), encourages established farmers with interest in retiring to place their land in the CRP, rather than exiting farming and selling or renting their land to other producers.

Fewer new farmers

Farmers between the ages of 65 and 74 represent the fastest growing sector of the farming population. According to the USDA’s 2012 Agricultural Census the average age of principal farm operators is 58.3 years old. There are twice as many farmers who are 75 and older, as there are farmers who are 34 and younger.

There can be no doubt that we need the new generation of farmers who are eager to participate in the local food movement. Yet between 1982 and 2007, the percentage of principal operators with fewer than 10 years’ experience dropped from 38% to 26%. The percentage of young farmers fell also, from 16% to 5%, with data from the 2012 Census confirming the continuation of that downward trend. Principal operators with fewer than 10 years’ experience now accounts for 22% of the total, while young farmers represent less than 6%.

The decline of beginning farmers and ranchers has been so sharp that in 2010 US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack urged Congress to consider adding a policy goal of 100,000 new farmers.

Addressing farmland access

In 2007, to explore and address the concerns of farmland access, succession, tenure, and stewardship (FarmLASTS), a national multi-year project was initiated by a collaboration between Land for Good and the University of Vermont. According to the report compiled by FarmLASTS, only 3% of farmland buyers are new farmers. Socially disadvantaged farmers face additional challenges, including cultural and language barriers.

farmers markets increase oppportunities for beginning farmers sign
Farmers’ markets increase opportunities for beginning farmers.

How will the decrease in beginning farmers affect the country? Based on policies, programs, and statements various policy makers have revealed they believe it matters to the country’s long-term food security. Some policy makers have even expressed the hope that beginning farmers will play a role in revitalizing rural communities, halting the long-term population losses the United States is suffering in those rural areas.

However, until we come up with some kind of incentive to encourage the older generation of farmers to work with beginning farmers─to ensure the stewardship of existing farmlands─the current trend is likely to continue.

Certainly it can be a harrowing experience for non-farmer landowners to sell to farmers because of the difference in the cost of farmland verses it’s value for potential development. Not all landowners are in a position to sell their property for anything less than top dollar, yet those who can afford to want to do just that.

Consumers are waking up to the health risks associated with processed foods. They’re realizing the environmental impacts of an industrialized farming system. People are turning to local foods, and farmers’ markets are on the rise across the US. In 1994 there were 1,755 farmers’ markets throughout the States; in 2014 that number had risen to 8,268─an increase of 471% over a 20-year time span.

The growth of local foods offers opportunity for beginning farmers, with farmers’ markets serving as an incubator for new farmers. Local farmers’ markets allow beginning farmers to grow their business and become a part of their community.

Agriculture needs community

The fact remains that fewer beginning farmers are coming into the industry, and not all of them will endure the long hard struggle to farm ownership. Innovative programs such as the Maine Farmland Trust’s “Forever Farms” project, which uses agricultural easements to preserve fertile land for farming, can help to stem the tide of farmland lost. Unfortunately it’s going to take more than a few organizations to rebuild and maintain a farming industry in rural America. Agriculture needs the support of the community. Not only is this industry dependent upon consumer support and the participation of local townsfolk, it thrives on it and in return feeds our country in more ways than one.

The number of beginning farmers entering agriculture is directly related to the cost of farmland and the obstacles new farmers face. At this time there are many questions left unanswered. Until policy is made to bridge the gap─to encourage more people to sell their lands as farmland, and to increase access to financing─it will continue to be a struggle for beginning farmers looking to get into the business.

Negotiations

mushrooms on an apple tree

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

swinging bridge farm old farmhouse
The Swinging Bridge Farm!

The Offer(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I await final confirmation. The suspense is excruciating.

What if this falls through?

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

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

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

Is it really suitable for pollinators?

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

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

Compromise

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

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

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

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

My best shot

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

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

Making an offer

Swinging Bridge Farm was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. We have decided to make an offer on the old place, in hopes of building the Runamuk Conservation Farm there.

On Friday as Paul and I made our way to 619 Middle Road to meet Leah, I couldn’t help feeling that I was being drawn there─like my spirit had been hooked right through my sternum and I was being reeled in like a trout on the end of a fishing line. Something inside me was answering the call of some invisible force and when I stepped out of the car and beheld the old farmhouse I felt a joyous connection of energies as Swinging Bridge Farm welcomed me.

Like something out of a storybook, the Swinging Bridge Farm is the epitome of the classic New England farmhouse. Simple clapboard siding, mercifully unadorned by vinyl siding (eew), with an attached barn and gnarly old apple trees.

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My farm-friendly realtor

Not many realtors would take the time or make the effort to walk a property like this with their client, but mine came dressed in rubber boots, as eager as we were to explore the 100 acres the old house sits on. I’m beginning to think that hiring Leah Watkins was a good move─not only is she enthusiastic about my project, but she has taken it upon herself to meet with the finance specialist at the FSA to learn more about the lending process there, as well as meeting with Nina Young at the Maine Farmland Trust to get an information download on how farming affects a real estate transaction and how─if at all─MFT might be able to help us.

When I said I wanted to make an offer Leah didn’t bat an eye. She told me to write a love letter to the seller regarding the property. Well that much I can certainly manage!

Now Leah is spending her holiday weekend drafting this sale agreement to send to the seller immediately following the holiday. She’s certainly earning her commission!!!

How it works

Financing with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency isn’t the same process as that of a mainstream bank. You don’t go to the FSA for a pre-qualification and then go look for a property in that price range. A farmer has to have a sale agreement in place before the government will even consider financing your project. And believe you me, it’s tough to get a seller to agree to anything without verification that you’ll actually be able to pay for it in the end.

If I can get this sale agreement nailed down, I can then polish my business plan, line up my numbers on my financials, and apply for a loan with the FSA. I’ll be applying on my own as a female farmer.

I thought long and hard about whether or not to do joint-ownership with Paul, my partner now since June of 2016. Ultimately as a mom─and as a woman─having worked on this for so very long, I wanted this one thing for just me, and me alone.

There’s also the fact that there are funds for women as disadvantaged farmers that I wanted to tap into, a certain sense of feminist pride I suppose─that I wanted to do this for women everywhere and hopefully inspire other women to continue their own fight for the right to farm and have their own lands. What’s more, the FSA has a requirement that farmers applying for their programs have a minimum of 3 years experience; with just 1 year of farming under his belt, Paul does not meet their guidelines.

Here are my options:

Plan A (preferred)
Fund 100% through the FSA using their Direct Down Payment loan to pay 20% of the total cost (whatever that figure ends up being). Then finance the remainder with the FSA’s Guaranteed Farm Ownership program.

Plan B
Finance the entire thing with the FSA under their Direct Farm Ownership program.

​It really depends on what Janice at the FSA office says when we talk to her, which ​route she feels stands the best chance for success. It also depends on how much we are able to raise on our own with the FarmRaiser campaign.

Meeting the world halfway

It’s not mine yet, and it may never be; there are still so many hurdles to overcome. But this is the story of a beginning farmer. These are the trials beginning farmers like me are facing every day. I am not a singularity.

The fact that I have struggled along the way to farm ownership does not mean I am a poor business person, lacking skills or planning. On the contrary─I’ve managed to grow my business despite being landless. Beekeeping has done that for me. And so has my commitment to community, along with my own resourcefulness, hard work and determination. These are the traits of a new generation of farmers like me, who are forging their farms in spite of the obstacles.

I have accepted my station as such, and I feel my choice in farmland reflects my willingness to meet the world halfway. This is not prime farmland. The soil is wonderfully rocky, and the farm is all uphill. This is not even prime development land, with deep gorges and high ridges, and so so much rock. The house is in need of modern updates like windows and doors, and there had been a leak at one point that did some damage to the ceiling in the summer wing. By no standards is the place elegant or even comfortable.

Living there will still be rough. Farming there will not be easy. But thankfully I am not a veggie farmer (aside from producing my own food), so I do not require prime farmland. And I am well accustomed to living in rough conditions, so I do not shy away from the challenges this property poses. I’m going to give it my all and see if we can make it happen.

Stay tuned for more updates coming soon! And please consider sharing the link to our FarmRaiser campaign!!!

Swinging Bridge Farm

619 middle rd

Last week there was a new listing at Realtor.com that immediately sparked my interest. We’d already seen the farmhouse during one of our drive-bys to see in person other properties on this same road in New Portland. It seems, in my area, and with my commitment to stay within my kid’s school district, the only community giving up farmland right now is New Portland.

When we saw the place earlier this year it appeared to be vacant, but the old farmhouse with the wooden sign above the door reading “Swinging Bridge Farm” peaked our curiosity, and we recognized it immediately when the property popped up on our daily inspection of current real estate listings.

Swinging Bridge Farm Old FarmhouseNamed for the wire bridge that was built in 1840 to cross the Carrabassett River just north of New Portland, the classic cape-style farmhouse was built in 1880, and has not been remodeled or updated yet. This might be a deterrent to most, but it is exactly what I have been looking for. I want something with history and character, and I can’t afford the beautified old farmhouses that have been renovated with modern conveniences. Besides, a farmhouse still in need of updating allows me to do the remodeling to suit my own particular taste. I can do it my way.

I was dismayed though to see the house was only listed with 4 acres─a dealbreaker for me as a farmer with lofty aspirations for a conservation farm.

But Paul is very good at sleuthing out information online and he found in the New Portland tax registry that the house is attached to a much larger chunk of acreage, and that it’s currently managed by a Land Trust. I asked Leah to contact the seller’s agent to ask whether they might consider selling the old house with the larger chunk of land that it sits on, and if they would be able to work with the long drawn-out process that is FSA financing.

That was on Friday.

It was a long suspenseful weekend lol, but yesterday Leah forwarded me the selling agent’s response: “They are willing to sell the entire parcel and understand the time issues.”

This is huge. I mean: HUGE.

Right out the gate with this property I’ve overcome 2 big obstacles: the time-line issue (for which I thought I would have to write a love letter and sell my soul to convince someone to wait 5-6 months for a sale) and the housing/acreage situation.

I was at Johnny’s when I got the message and it was all I could do to get through the call I was on before I ran through the building with my megaphone leaping joyfully and shouting the news for all to hear.

leaping with joy…..okay, so I didn’t have a megaphone, and it wouldn’t have been appreciated had I gone through the entire office building shouting─but I did share (rather exuberantly) the news with a number of coworkers lol.

The sellers admitted that the house isn’t perfect and that it’s going to need some work, but I had fully expected that─and welcome it. The property has not been farmed in a long, long time, and whatever fields there once were have grown up into forest. At this point there’s only a few acres open to begin cultivating on, but that’s enough to get started and Paul has intentions of utilizing silvopasture methods to open up the land.

We’re going to see it Friday. Which, coincidentally, is the same day Runamuk’s FarmRaiser campaign is scheduled to launch.

Could it be? Are the stars finally aligning for me and for Runamuk?

With the agreement from the seller for the entire parcel and their willingness to work with me on the timeline, I feel as though the first big hurdle is already overcome. Yet there is a level of suspense and anticipation that is palpable, I won’t breathe easy until the online listing says “Pending”. And then there will be other hurdles following in succession to overcome in acquiring the financing. This is the beginning of a long road to farm-ownership, I know, but it’s the first step, and a momentous one.

Be sure to share with friends to spread the word about our upcoming campaign! And local readers should mark their calendars for the big Runamuk FarmRaiser Party on October 1st! Stay tuned for more updates coming soon! new list

3 Easy Ways To Promote Native Bees On Your Farm Or Homestead

For farmers and homesteaders, it just makes sense to promote the myriad of native bees on your farm.  By encouraging native bees you’re effectively promoting the overall health of the  ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer─since bees are a keystone species and their health and well-being directly impacts plants and animals all the way up the food chain.  A healthy ecosystem is going to result in improved yields; whether you’re farming for vegetables, or farming grass for your cattle herd─the health of your farm’s ecosystem can directly impact your harvest─and so too your profitability.

Note: See this post for more details about the benefits of supporting native pollinators on your farm, and this one for information about who exactly the pollinators are. For the purposes of this article we will be talking largely about native bees, of which there are some 4000 species in North America, and more than 20,000 world-wide.

promoting native bees on your farm or homesteadStep 1 – Recognize existing native bee habitat

Once you’ve committed yourself to the concept of promoting your local native bee populations, there are a number of ways you can improve and create habitat, safe-guard their existence, and encourage their proliferation. First evaluate your farm for existing nesting habitat.  Often we have colonies of native bees present that we are simply overlooking.  Take a walk around your farm to look for these areas.

Sites for ground-nesting bees: Remember that 70% of native bees are ground-nesters.  Look for spots where the soil is of poor quality, bare or sparsely vegetated.  Look for the entrances of ground-nesting native bees. Often they will be marked by a small mound of soil that has been excavated, but it may also be little more than a small hole in the ground.  Usually they will be located in marginal area of the farm, like the banks of drainage ditches or close to buildings or other structures.

By encouraging native bees you can promote the overall health of the ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer. Click to learn more from Runamuk Acres Farm & Apiary in Maine!

Sites for wood and cavity-nesting bees: These bees typically do not excavate their own nests–instead they take advantage of the tunnels created by burrowing beetle larvae in dead wood.  They might utilize the center of pithy-stemmed shrubs , while bumble bees frequently nest in old rodent burrows or under tussocks of grass.  Look for dead wood, brush piles, dense shrubby snags, and overgrown native bunch grasses.

Food for Bees

Once you’ve noticed that native bees are indeed present, learn to recognize the plants supporting them.  The best of these will be crawling with many insects─mostly bees─and may be found in area along the roadside, in field boarders, around farm buildings and under utility easements.  These flowers are not a distraction from your crops, as they actually help local bees to reproduce with greater success.

What’s available & when? Try to discern how much forage is available for the native bees.  A study performed by researchers at the University of California, show that when approximately 30% of the land within three-quarters of a mile of the crop-fields is growing natural habitat, native bees can provide all the pollination necessary for a crop of watermelon.  In Canada, Lora Morandin from the University of California discovered that in the absence of honeybees, canola farmers can maximize their income if 30% of the farmland is left in it’s natural habitat─thanks to pollination by wild bees.

Look at the flowers, shrubs, and even the trees growing on and around your farm.  Are they mostly native species?  Do you have a mix of native and naturalized (non-invasive) species, or do you have invasive flowering weeds present on the property? How far away from the farm and your crop-fields are these areas located? The typical foraging distance of native bees is about 500-feet to half a mile from their nest, with the larger species flying farther than the small ones.  Large area of pollinator habitat should be within half a mile of an insect-pollinated crop in order to be of the greatest benefit for crop production.

early spring maple forage for native bees
Many trees–such as the maple pictured–provide early spring food for pollinators.

Take note of the point in the season when they flower─which plants flower in the spring, which in the summer, and which ones flower in the fall?  How many are flowering during each season?  Native bees need forage available throughout the duration of the growing season in order to reproduce and survive.

What are the landscape features of your farm?  How many acres is the average size of your crop field?  What additional landscape features are located within a mile of the crop field?  For example─do you have existing vegetative buffers, to catch drifting insecticides (if you use them), hedgerows, windbreaks, fence-rows of diverse tree and shrub species.  Do you maintain flowering cover crops or a bee-pasture, or do you allow any crops to bolt and flower, which also offers forage for native pollinators.  Do you have a water source for native bees on the farm? Once you’ve found these nesting and foraging sites, leave them alone─preserve them─make the commitment to keep those sites in tact in order to maintain the existing populations of native bees.

Step 2 – Adapt your farming practices

Farmers can help preserve local populations of native bees by making adjustments to their management practices.  Even minor changes can make a big difference.

agriope spider reduces pest pressure in sustainable farming
Beneficial insects like this agriope spider thrive when bee-friendly practices are employed, reducing pest-pressure in the garden or crop-fields.

Are you using insecticides? Ultimately, one of the best things a farmer can do is to avoid the use of pesticides.  Most pesticides kill native bees directly─on contact, while others kill bees indirectly─the pesticide may be carried inadvertently back to the hive in the pollen and nectar, and fed to other bees.  Even some fungicides can kill bees directly–or they may have a sub-lethal effect on the bees–reducing the numbers of offspring the female bee can produce for the next season. When insecticides can’t be avoided─employing an IPM program (Integrated Pest Management) is a good measure for controlling pests and protecting native bees at the same time.  Should the need to apply an insecticide or fungicide arise─spraying at night, when─pollinators are inactive, spraying only outside of bloom periods, and carefully considering the drift path of insecticides─are important methods for protecting existing populations of native bees.

Tillage and weed control: Extensive tillage destroys the nests of shallow ground-nesting bees, and hinders the emergence of bees nesting deeper in the ground.  Farmers should look for nest sites that already exist before tilling. Some native bees are very tightly connected with their host flowers─such as squash bees with cucurbit crops.  The females may dig vertical tunnels in the ground directly next to the plant, and the next generation of bees are typically concentrated 6-12 inches below the surface of the ground.  Plowing destroys these nests, and kills most of the developing bees.  Farmers who discover squash bees living in their fields of melons and squash should try setting their plows at shallower depths─less than 6 inches─or look into no-till practices.

Land management techniques: Are you grazing, burning, mowing, or haying on and around your farm?  Each of these methods have positive and negative impacts on your local native bee populations.  Consider all aspects carefully before moving ahead with maintenance of the landscape.

Grazing – While common practice─can alter the structure, diversity, and growth of the vegetation within a habitat, which can impact the local insect community.  When flowers are scarce, grazing can result in insufficient forage for pollinators.  Grazing also poses the threat of destroying potential and existing nest sites, and can result in the direct trampling of adult bees.

Burning – Fire management of the landscape can have a highly variable effect on insect communities.  When used appropriately, fire can restore and maintain habitat for pollinators; but if used too frequently it can result in a dramatic decrease of invertebrate populations.

bee-friendly rotational field mowing
A mowing rotation can help boost pollinator populations.

Mowing – Like grazing, mowing can suppress the growth of woody vegetation─thus maintaining vegetative pastures where pollinators thrive.  However─it can also negatively impact insects through direct mortality─especially of the egg and larval stages when nests are mowed under, because those bees cannot escape.

Mowing also creates a uniform field─destroying features like the grass tussocks that bumble bees prefer to nest under.  What’s more─mowing very abruptly removes almost all flowers. The landscape can still be managed though─to maintain those open areas─if farmers conduct mowing and burning when plants and pollinators are dormant (in the late fall and throughout the winter months─depending on where you are located).  Limit the disturbance to one-third or one-fourth of the landscape, to ensure the survival of some of the native bee populations, so that they may recolonize the managed area.  And practice rotational grazing─using a carefully planned to suit the conditions of the site.

Practice bee-friendly farm management: There are a number of ways farmers can adjust their management practices to encourage pollinator populations on and around their farms.  Even the most minor changes can make the world of difference to your native bees.

  • Diversity of crops – Growing a wide variety of crops can support native bees by extending the bloom period.
  • Staggered plantings – If you specialize in a single crop, consider succession plantings to encourage pollinator populations.  For example─growing early and late-flowering blueberries or apples allows more foraging time by the native bees─increasing their reproductive success.
  • mustard gone to flower
    Mustard that has gone to flower in the garden.

    Allow some crops to bolt – Leaving a portion of your crop in the ground, and allowing them to mature and flower before you plow them under is a simple delay in management that provides an additional source of food for your bees.

  • Strategic crop rotation – When rotating crops, moving it to a new field 500-1000 feet away allows the offspring of the bees that are currently foraging on that crops flowers to find the new site the following year.
  • Non-chemical alternatives to pesticides – Maintain a healthy and diverse landscape to deter pests and diseases.  Practice biological controls, such as hand-picking or crushing larger insects, or spraying with soapy water.  Employ good sanitation practices: remove infected leaves and the previous year’s crop from the area to further limit the spread of disease.  For larger farms where hand-picking is not practical, utilizing IPM methods can be a good compromise.
  • Tolerate weeds – While weed management is important for successful crop production–some weeds are important food sources for bees and other beneficial insects.  Tolerating the presence of weeds on the farm can go a long way toward providing additional food for crop-pollinating insects. Maybe you have areas weeds can be allowed to grow, or select weeds you can coexist with?

Step 3 – Provide additional habitat

If you’re looking to actively increase the populations of resident bees on your farm─-you can increase the available foraging habitat to include a range of plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall─providing an abundant supply of pollen and nectar all season long.

buckwheat cover crop
A cover crop improves soil conditions and reduces weed pressure, all while feeding important beneficial insects.

Cover crops & bee-pastures: Growing appropriate cover crops and letting them bloom, or devoting some areas to specialized bee-pastures are 2 easy ways to include your native bees. Bee-pastures are fields growing plants that offer superior food for bees.  They offer an abundant bloom throughout the nesting period and especially during the larval stages, and bee-emergence.  Usually these pasture consist of high-density wildflower meadows with a diversity of plant species, including many native plant varieties, but possibly some non-native species which are not aggressive or invasive.

Understory plantings: Try using cover crops as understory plantings in orchards, where the flowers bloom all at once, and then are gone, leaving little else for the rest of the year, or use clover in the pathways of your gardens and crop fields.

Smaller plantings throughout the farm: Placing smaller plantings of wildflowers every 500-feet throughout the farm helps native bees move deeper into the farm.  These potential nesting sites mean the bees won’t have to go far from where they are foraging on a crop to find new food sources coming into bloom once your crop has flowered.

Start today!

Promoting the health of your farm’s ecosystem by focusing conservation efforts on native bees is a great way to increase the viability of your farm.  There are programs available for farmers interested in pollinator conservation–contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service to find out more about the resources they’re offering farmers to do just that.  And keep in mind that some of the best measures you can take actually reduce your expenses–or cost nothing whatsoever–so what are you waiting for? Start today!

What do you think? Is it worth it to go the extra mile to promote the health of your farm’s ecosystem? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below!

Big news at Madison Farmers’ Market!

fun-and-games-at-market

This will be the Madison Farmers’ Market’s 5th season and what a season it is shaping up to be! I’m so excited and so proud that I’m fairly bursting! We have some big changes planned and despite the snow in our local forecast, the days are getting longer and I have faith that spring will soon be here and I will be in the dirt once more.

big-news-at-the-mfm_fiNew Vendors!

Our little market has grown from just two lonely farmers along the side of the road on Main Street in Madison to twelve farmers this year, with the recent addition of two new vendors. At our annual New Applicant Meeting we met with potential vendors and unanimously voted to bring Steelbow Farm and S&S Kid Farm into the fold. Coincidentally, both these farms are located on the Father Rasle Rd on the Norridgewock side.

Finnegan and Jason are transplants to the area, working with a local land-owner to establish their farm here in Maine. They’re offering mixed vegetables and a CSA program─both with the Madison market and also in Bangor.

Shana Brown is a local whom I’ve been acquainted with for years. She raises goats and makes fabulous goat cheeses, as well as goats’ milk soap and different body butters. Shana also grows vegetables and raises rabbits, so you may see some of that from her too.

Switching to Saturday!

maple-products-at-market
Haulk’s Maple of Madison with a wide variety of Maine maple products.

When we first started the Madison Farmers’ Market, we worried about having to compete with the larger and well-established Skowhegan Farmers’ Market. We went with Sunday and have actually developed a select following of customers who like that we’re available on Sunday. However, while the market has seen some growth, the rate is not at the level our local farmers require in order to meet their income needs. What’s more, it has become apparent that in-town Madison is much busier on Saturday than it is on Sunday. After several years observing our community, our farmers have concluded that─in general─the people of Madison-Anson seem to like to do their running around on Saturday so that they can stay at home or go to church on Sunday. With that in mind (and after much debate), our farmers have voted democratically to take this big and bold step in order to better meet the needs of both the community and it’s farmers.

Madison Farmers’ Market
is switching to Saturdays!

The market will continue to be held in the parking lot at the Main Street Park in Madison, directly across the street from Skowhegan Savings Bank from 9am to 2pm. We will host all of the same vendors with the same great, locally produced foods and products, but we’ll be there on Saturdays rather than Sunday. We will continue our participation in the Harvest Bucks program in order to be able to offer bonus-bucks to EBT-shoppers too. Hopefully this means more local folks will be encouraged to shop and eat local foods, but just in case that wasn’t enough incentive to come to the Madison Farmers’ Market this summer─there’s more!

Introducing our new Kid’s Club!

annual-farmers-market-convention-maine
Trisha Smith at MFFM’s recent convention.

Regular readers of the Runamuk blog may recall that I recently attended my second-ever farmers’ market convention back in January. After sitting through a presentation entitled “Bringing the whole family: integrating youth and family programming at the farmers’ market”, I was inspired to begin our very own Kid’s Club program at the Madison Farmers’ Market. It is my hope that with this program we will not only inspire enthusiasm for fresh, local foods in the next generation of market-shoppers, but also build relationships between the community and it’s farmers.

Our market in Madison is already super family-friendly. Several of us bring children with us to market and we’ve gotten pretty creative with our shenanigans there. Check it out:

changes-at-farmers-market
Here is my son with fellow-farmer Crym Sullivan of Sidehill Farm in Madison: squash-bowling at market is a competitive sport!
fun-for-kids-at-farmers-market
We don’t just paint faces at market, Jessica Paul creates beautiful works of art on each child!
kids-club-at-farmers-market
We love little ones at the Madison Farmers’ Market!
fun-and-games-at-farmers-market
Who says you shouldn’t play with your food?!
fun-and-games-at-market
More fun and games at market.

How does the Kids’ Club work?

madison-farmers-market-kids-clubTheme-Days: For each week of the program I’ve planned some really fun themes like “Shoots & Sprouts Day” and “Decomposers Day” in observance of National Gardening Month, and “Birds & Bees Day” in honor of National Pollinators Week. Other fun themes include “Alien Day” as part of World UFO Day, “Mid-Summer’s Day” to celebrate the Summer Solstice, and “Adventure Day”─think Indiana Jones, Star Wars, LOTR and every fairy tale or fantasy you’ve ever read or watched.

Special Events: As part of the Kid’s Club program, on July 9th the market will host “Every Day Heroes Day” to show appreciation for our local firefighters, law enforcement, paramedics, nurses and other such every-day heroes. I hope to have the local fire department come with a firetruck, as well as our local sheriff (who actually has been an occasional patron to the market–yay!) and maybe even a local game warden. Then on August 20th, to observe International Homeless Animals Day, we’ve scheduled “Man’s Best Friend Day” with a pet food and supply drive to benefit the Somerset County Humane Society. Our annual Harvest Celebration will conclude the program on Saturday, September 9th.

Sponsored by Backyard Farms!

madison-farmers-market-kids-club-passport-book
Prototype of the Kids’ Club Passport.

In order to pay for this program, I had to seek local sponsorship to cover the cost of the $2 tokens for the kids (I set a goal of 100 kids for the first year of this new program), along with the supplies needed for the crafts and activities planned over the course of the season. After meeting with Tim Curtis (Madison’s town manager) with a host of materials–including a prototype of the Kid’s Club Passport, a program overview, and some initial ideas for market-themes–Tim took my prepared materials and approached Backyard Farms on the market’s behalf. As you probably know, Backyard Farms is a huge greenhouse right here in Madison where over 200 employees grow tomatoes all year-round. In fact, believe it or not – this is their 10th anniversary!

Within days, I had a response from Jim Darroch, Director of Marketing at Backyard Farms, who said:

Teaching children to develop healthy eating habits can be challenging for busy parents. Especially if their kids are picky eaters or reluctant to try new things. Not only does this passport idea make it fun for kids to try different fruits and vegetables, it makes it easier for Mom or Dad too.

How amazing is that!?

Getting the word out

groundswell-seed-farm
Marafax beans─an heirloom variety─available from Groundswell Seed Farm of Embden.

Now that I’ve got the details and funding of the Kid’s Club squared away, all that remains is to get the word out to the community about this great new─and free─program. As luck would have it, when I went to that annual farmers’ market convention I was able to reconnect with Cheryl Curtis, who has been a friend of the Madison Farmers’ Market since it’s inception.

Cheryl is now working for Somerset Public Health visiting local schools teaching nutrition, and I am going to be allowed to accompany her to introduce the Kid’s Club to my target audience. In May I will visit children in grades K through 6 at Madison Elementary, Garret Schenck Elementary in Anson, and the Carrabec Community School in North Anson. Flyers will also be sent home with students to inform parents, and even more flyers will be distributed across the communities by myself and my “army of farmers”.

Come see us at market!

madison-maine-farmers-marketMarket season for the Madison Farmers’ Market begins on May 13th this year─that’s the second Saturday of the month. If you’ve been a devoted patron to our market, then we hope you’ll be able to come see us on our new day; for locals who have been considering giving the market a try but haven’t made it because of scheduling conflicts, we hope these big and bold changes encourage you to come see us.

I’m so proud of the community we’ve been able to build through our farmers’ market. Over the last few years, we’ve seen slow but steady growth and we’ve developed some great relationships with customers and friends to the market. Our local farmers are an eclectic bunch─all kind, friendly and knowledgeable people. Each and every one of them are dedicated to farming and to bringing fresh, local foods to the people of Madison and Anson.  It truly is a wonderful feeling to be a part of something so vibrant, honest and inspiring, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

Be sure to follow the Madison Farmers’ Market on facebook for market-reminders, special event listings, and up-to-date information from your local farmers.

New pollinator conservation planning services!

bee-habitat-planning

Over the last decade my personal mission in life has slowly evolved into one that is two-fold. One the one hand I’m dedicated to sustainability and all that word encompasses: sustainable energies and industries, sustainable living, sustainable communities─and especially sustainable food systems. On the other hand, and perhaps just a little overzealously─is the part of me which is committed to pollinator conservation.

pollinator-conservation-planningIt’s a commitment to wildlife and nature in general, that drives me. That’s the basis of my principles and the force behind my stubborn pursuit of a sustainable life. I have chosen to devote my life to nature, through stewardship as a farmer and wildlife advocate. By focusing my efforts on a keystone species like pollinators I can do good that benefits the entire ecosystem. And so my life’s other mission is to help bees and other beneficial insects.

That’s right. BUGS.

I like to laugh at myself now, because when I was 14 years old I never would have imagined I’d grow up to be the person I am today.

And yet I’m really excited about this new project. I want to work with home-owners, property managers, and farmers who want to create more bee-friendly habitats wherever they are located.

Enter the Pollinator and Beneficial Insect Conservation Plan.

What is it?

These are site-specific blueprints that identify habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects in your backyard, on your farm, on existing conservation land or other property, and offers recommendations to increase their abundance. I want to come to your property to assess existing habitat and then design a plan tailored to meet your particular goals.

What are the benefits?

bee-habitat-planningBy implementing my recommendations you can increase the available forage and nesting habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Creating habitat for bees creates habitat for other wildlife, and by protecting the flora and fauna in your area you can even help combat climate change.

Farmers and gardeners will see improvement in the pollination of their crops, which results in increased yields. Promoting the abundance of beneficial insects also contributes to natural pest suppression and so reduces the need for pesticide applications.

To learn more about the benefits of a Pollinator & Beneficial Insect Conservation Plan check out our new consulting page which lists all the details regarding this service.

Types of Projects

  • Private land owners: home-owners and farms
  • Residential and resort communities
  • Community centers and faith-based organizations
  • Municipalities
  • Historic farms and gardens
  • Schools, camps, and other educational programs
  • Children’s hospitals, senior centers and other health-based institutions
  • Restaurants, culinary centers and spas

I’m ready!

No matter how large or small the plot you have to work with, there’s something we can all do to help bees, pollinators, and other beneficial insects. I’m ready to help you create your bee-friendly space.

Check out the consultations page for all of the details related to this new service from Runamuk, and if you’re interested drop me a line. If you know anyone who might be interested, please share our contact info with them and help me to help bees!