Garden help

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Honestly I wonder sometimes which I really love more: beekeeping or gardening? Working with the soil and helping plants to grow is an intoxicating drug for me and one I could easily spend all day stoned on. But at the same time, the bees are my zen. When I’m working with bees I’m thinking about nothing else; hours slip away when I’m in the apiary.

In my last post I mentioned that I am going back to being a seasonal employee at Johnny’s. April 30 will be my last day there until after Thanksgiving. I’m going to miss my friends at Johnny’s, but I know I need the time and flexibility to be able to tend my apiary if I want to succeed at beekeeping. But I still have bills to pay and while I’m glad to be able to say that Runamuk is at a point where it is supporting itself, it’s not yet able to support me─or my kids. So this summer I’m offering up my gardening skills to local residents. Yay!

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I seem to do well with legumes: look at these gorgeous peas!

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Here’s an example of my work: some sexy-looking potatoes right there!
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For $20 an hour I will help with whatever gardening project you have in mind for this spring and summer. Overwhelmed with the amount of work at your homestead? Getting on in age and just can’t do the hard manual labor anymore? Want to get into gardening but have no idea where to start or how to grow? Well I’ve got 2 hands, a strong back and enough muscle (usually) to get the job done. I can help with bed preparation, tilling, digging, planting, weeding, pruning of shrubs, berry bushes, fruit trees and more. I can teach you how to grow and guide you all season long. Or I can take orders and do the brute work for you, leaving you free to enjoy the best parts of gardening: harvesting.

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I can help you create bee-friendly spaces in your garden, around your home or farm, or on any other property you might have.

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I seem to have good luck with peppers too.

Want to help native pollinators on your property? I’m your girl! I can assess your gardens, homestead, farm─any property─for existing pollinator habitat and I can identify areas of opportunity for growing your local native pollinator populations. I’ll draw up a plan for enhancing pollinator habitat wherever you are, and I can even help you implement that plan. Check out Runamuk’s “Consultations” page for more details.

It’s new for me and a little scary, so to test the waters posted my gardening services for hire on a few facebook group pages to see what would happen. Within no time at all I had 6 local clients who want me to work for them this season. That doesn’t sound like much, but it sufficiently replaces my Johnny’s income and still leaves me the time I need to manage my apiary and tend my own garden. I also expect to pick up a few more gigs once the season is actually underway.

I’m really excited about the upcoming season. With the Queen-rearing this year, the new happenings at the Madison Farmers’ Market, and my gardening side-business─I think it’s going to be good. If you or someone you know lives locally and needs a gardener this growing season, feel free to contact me by phone or email. If you’re interested in establishing pollinator habitat you should contact me─I’ll definitely want in on that.

Big news at Madison Farmers’ Market!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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:

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

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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

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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.

Maine Farmers’ Market Convention

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Leigh Hallet, executive director of MFFM leads the proceedings.

Maine is blessed with a robust community of farmers and people that are passionate about local food. Not only do we have MOFGA (the Maine Organic Farmers’ and Gardeners’ Association), the nation’s oldest and largest organic organizations, but we also have the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets (MFFM). This was the second year I attended the Maine Farmers’ Market Convention which is led by MFFM and was held yesterday at the Kennebec Valley Community College Alfond Campus in Fairfield.

The MFFM was established in 1991 and has grown into a rich resource, serving farmers markets and working to grow access to local food across Maine. In 2014 Leigh Hallett took over as Executive Director; then in 2015 Emilie Knight was hired as the SNAP Program Coordinator, and Emily Buswell as an administrative assistant. These ladies have been instrumental in establishing a farmers’ market in Madison; the MFFM website is a wealth of information─stuff like how to operate a market, legal regulations, safety and sanitation, and even market promotion. The MFFM and all who serve the organization are dedicated to Maine’s local food network.

There were more than 130 people in attendance, representing markets from all across the state, with 3 different sessions over the course of the day and a total of 13 presentations. With so many issues important to my market and to me, it was hard to choose just 3 to sit in on!

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Trisha Smith of the Piscataquis County Cooperative Extension demonstrates how costumes like this carrot-suit can be used to engage kids.

One of the presentations I enjoyed most was titled: “Bringing the whole family: integrating youth and family programming at the farmers’ market”. I like to think that the Madison Farmers’ Market is a family-oriented market. We set up at the town park where families can play at the playground before or after their visit to the market. We also have a number of little ones that join our vendors at the Madison Farmers’ Market and the farmers and I have talked about ways we can incorporate more family-oriented activities over the course of the market season. There were 4 presenters for this topic: Deb Barnett of the Kennebec Cooperative Extension, Trisha Smith of the Piscataquis Cooperative Extension, Nancy Wood of the Knox County Community Health Coalition, and Elizabeth Siegel of the Union Farmers’ Market.

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Nancy Wood of the Knox County Community Health Coalition is very enthusiastic about the work she does with the Gardener Farmers’ Market.

These ladies shared with us their experiences engaging families in their communities through the local farmers’ market, including activity ideas, market-themes, and concepts like a “Kids’ Club” and a “Passport Program”. They talked about how they’d funded those projects and how they’d raised community support for their farmers’ markets. These women were all passionate about their markets, and about including children so that families can come and participate. It was really inspiring; I brought home lots of great ideas for the upcoming season at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

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Dr. Alfonso Morales of the University of Wisconsin in Madison gave a motivating keynote speech.

The keynote speaker at the convention was Dr. Alfonso Morales of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning. Dr. Morales also has a passion for farmers’ markets. He reminded us that historically, market places have been the root of social and economic life, and explained that markets have played a central role in forming society. Great markets of the past inspired trade, infrastructure, even modern law and policies. Dr. Morales pointed out that markets offer the opportunity for various government and non-profit groups to work together to achieve mutual goals.

During the annual meeting, MFFM unveiled their 1st Maine Farmers’ Market Annual Report, which they’d assembled using information collected during Snapshot Week back in August. If you’re not familiar with it, Snapshot Week was held during National Farmers’ Market Week, with more than 50 markets participating, including the Madison Farmers’ Market. The MFFM provided market managers with “tool-kits” that included shopper surveys and “I Love Farmers’ Markets” temporary tattoos. The information gathered during this week-long celebration enabled MFFM to gather data and put together this report which tells the story of the impact Maine’s farmers’ markets have on the state’s economy and their local communities.

I think Dr. Morales was inspired by the convention, he pointed out that not every state has an association like MFFM, or the strength. He went on to say,

This is a huge resource. You are that resource─the information you share with each other.

We really are blessed in Maine to have this strong and vibrant community of farmers and gardeners, and people who are dedicated to local food. That community isn’t confined to the halls of the conference center, I’ve found those kinds of people are everywhere in Maine if only you look for them, reach out to them, ask questions and participate. In general, Maine’s farmers are willing to share with you their knowledge, their experiences─stories of mishaps or success─and that’s what continues to grow Maine’s local food movement. That’s what makes it so inspiring and keeps people like me going even when the going is rocky. That is the heart of Maine and of our local food movement.

It’s a new year with new opportunities! Stay tuned folks!

2016 Year-End Review

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A full rotation of the Earth around the sun has brought us once again to the end of the calendar year. It’s been a busy year for Runamuk, with some ups and some downs too, and some life altering moments. Before we shift our focus to 2017 and all that the new year may bring our way I’d like to take a moment to review what went well this year on our apiary and farm─and what did not.

Personally

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It’s a special kindov guy willing to lend a hand in the apiary!

Right out the gate 2016 brought a budding romance with a former CSA-customer of mine, and looking back on it now I suppose that set the tone for the whole year. Paul was eager to live the homesteader’s life, a more self-sufficient life, and an honest life, and he made up his mind pretty quickly that he wanted to do it with me. On the other hand, I was fresh out of one relationship and my divorce still a raw wound so I was fairly cautious about bringing a new person into my life and onto my farm. We decided on a 1-year trial “apprenticeship”, though Paul has been much more than my apprentice from the very start, lol. Over the course of the year we developed a strong partnership, which I’m confident will serve Runamuk well as we continue to grow the apiary together.

Apiary

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Hot bees hanging outside the hive!

In the apiary 4 out of 5 hives survived the winter of 2015-2016. When statistics indicate beekeepers are losing anywhere from 30 to 37% of their hives each winter, to have just a 20% loss was a big victory for Runamuk. I’ve been eager to grow my apiary, with big plans to expand and spent months last winter working on my business plan. It became apparent pretty quickly though that Runamuk just doesn’t have the kind of numbers that financial institutions want to see when they lend money. That’s one of the downsides to bootstrapping your business I guess.

Farming of any kind is a lot of investment up-front and it can take several years before the farmer starts seeing a return. For first generation farmers like me there’s a steep learning curve and the first years in business tend to involve some stumbling as we learn on-the-job. All this is especially true in beekeeping where all of the investment is in the hive-equipment and the gear you need to manage the bees, and where it can take new beekeepers half a decade to really grasp the intricacies of beekeeping today.

So the realities of the business world hit home for me; afterall, farming is a business just like other businesses. If you can’t show that you’re generating a positive income, even the USDA won’t give you money. Sure there are a number of programs to help beginning farmers or female farmers like me, but they still want to see those positive numbers.

And of course, there was the insecurity of my place there at Jim’s farm, when just 9 months after I signed their lease agreement my landlords decided to sell the property. Brief dealings with the Maine Farmland Trust revealed the bias that exists within the Maine agricultural sector, and the realities of business and money reared their ugly heads to create a road-block that ultimately put that farm out of my reach. This was the life altering moment when I chose to walk away, to say goodbye to a property which was, perhaps, the love of my life, in favor of the lifestyle that I need to live in order to be happy. I will never forget that piece of land, or the way it made me feel to be there, the plans I had to bring that iconic farm back to life, and how much I loved it.

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New honeybee colonies come in these starter-hives called “nucleus colonies” or “nucs”.

Despite that set back we managed to bring 10 nucleus colonies to the apiary this year, in addition we made a number of our own nucs by breaking up one of the four hives that survived the winter. I also caught a swarm and successfully hived it. We went into the 2016 winter with 15 colonies, at last check we’d lost 2 so current count is 13.

This was Runamuk’s second year with no honey crop. Last year, following the brutal winter of 2014-2015 when my hives all died, I brought in 5 nucs and took no honey from those new colonies. This year Maine experienced drought conditions that were pretty severe in some parts of our state; as a result the flowers were not producing much nectar and what little honey the bees made I distributed between the hives to ensure their winter survival. Runamuk customers have been asking for honey and while they were all disappointed by our lack of available honey, most were understanding and patient.

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I made a lot of soap this year!!!

I made more soap than ever before this year and even expanded my soap-line to offer new seasonal fragrances that were only available while supplies last, which was a big hit with Runamuk’s dedicated patrons and shoppers at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Increasing our distribution of Runamuk’s beeswax products had been a big goal for 2016; I managed to put together a store on our website, I listed soaps and salves with The Pick-Up in Skowhegan, and North Star Orchards sold my products in their farm-store too.

With my part-time off-the-farm job in addition to the #greatfarmmove, I found it difficult to maintain the pace and to allocate the time required to keep up with the soaps and salves. I couldn’t dedicate the amount of time necessary to photograph each product and write descriptions for online listings, and to top it off problems with the shipping-program we used on the Runamuk site made our online store unattractive to shoppers. We’ve taken the store off the site for maintenance and intend to have it back early in the new year.

Pollinator Conservation

I feel like this was a big year for my efforts to promote pollinator conservation. I only did a couple of small local presentations over the course of the summer: one with the children of the Solon Summer Rec program, one for the robotics team of the homeschool association at the Crossroads Bible Church in Madison, and one presentation for the folks at Johnny’s. But there was my talk at the Common Ground Fair, that was a pretty big achievement─and then the new beneficial-insect symbol in the Johnny’s catalog that I was fortunate to be part of. These successes have spurred something new and exciting coming to Runamuk; you’ll get that news in an up-coming blog-post so stay tuned!

Homestead, Farm & Garden

For years I’ve been working toward an increasingly self-sufficient diet of unprocessed and conscientiously produced foods. This year Paul and I made some big strides together choosing to eat less meat, and more vegetables, grains and legumes. We’re determined to feed ourselves and have been eating a lot of foods we’ve either grown or raised ourselves, foraged for, or purchased/bartered locally from other farmers we know. I still make a weekly shopping list for Hannaford, but I rarely spend more than $35 there, and that’s usually in the form of butter, coffee, and other staples─you know, like toilet paper─or wine.

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Field pea shoots on the left and buckwheat shoots on the right. Made us some great salads with some DIY vinaigrette to go with it!
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Bass caught in the Sandy River, breaded in cornmeal and pan fried, served on a bed of microgreens, with a slice of buttered sourdough bread.

This year, to feed ourselves we grew our own sprouts and shoots, delved into the complexities of sour-dough baking, we foraged for fiddleheads and ramps, Paul went fishing and we harvested so much asparagus from Jim’s garden that we stank when we peed! We were even able to sell some at the farmers’ market. We grew a great crop of early peas and greens; I fell in love with Cherokee lettuce I grew from seed I got at Johnny’s (check this out!). I planted a big and beautiful garden and sowed 80 pounds of seed potato.

Despite my attempt to choke out the weeds with a first-year cover crop of buckwheat, the quack-grass was undeterred, but I was determined. My dedication to weeding faultered however when I realized I was going to let go my love affair with Jim’s farm. The weeds seized their opportunity and quickly took over the garden.

Lack of rain meant we were trying to irrigate the crops, using both the well and the pond. Paul set up a complex series of hoses and sprinklers, soaker-hoses and pumps, but even still it was a challenge to keep the crops moist in the sandy soil that made up the big garden. It took forever for my carrots to germinate, and then they grew so slowly that I forsake them; Paul pulled up a few slender carrots and a number of thumb-sized nubs on moving day.

Onions didn’t want to grow, my squash patch suffered, and though we grew some beautiful tomato plants with manure procured from friends at Willow Lane Farm in Harmony, we experienced an acute case of blossom end-rot that affected nearly the entire crop. We did however manage to get a harvest of early maturing potatoes: our Red Norlands did very well, and we had some Adirondack Blue and strawberry paw potatoes too. I had a third of my garden planted in potatoes, and half of the potato patch was dedicated to Kennebec potatoes for winter storage. Because they’re a late-maturing variety they suffered more from the drought and weed-pressure. I also ran out of time to harvest due to the move.

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Here I am beginning to skin and gut my first meat-rabbit!

Paul brought bunnies to the farm and I attended a workshop at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison to learn how to process the meat-rabbits when the time comes. I kept a pair of rabbits in the garden for the summer, but never managed to construct the rabbit-tractor I wanted for the other pair of bunnies so I wound up rotating the rabbits between the barn and the one outdoor crate.

This year I finally went to the Maine Artisan Bread Fair that’s been held annually at the Skowhegan Fair Grounds for 10 years now. I brought home the abandoned kitten, and 30 more chicks for egg-production. Later in the fall, with help from Ernie and Gwen Hilton─good friends and dedicated supporters to Runamuk (and me), who live and farm at Hyl-Tun Farm just a mile up the road from where I was at Jim’s there in Starks─we sent 30 birds to freezer-camp: theirs and mine.

Storing the food we’d produced became another issue─especially once we’d made the move from Jim’s big old farmhouse where there was plenty of space, to Paul’s small mobile home. We’re making the best of it and have stashed the freezer full of food, the boxes of potatoes, and the bin of garlic, in the back bedroom as far away from the woodstove as possible, with the pumpkins and squashes lined up along the floor at the base of the wall.

Blog & Writing

Including this post, I’ve written 15 articles on a variety of topics from beekeeping and what kind of plants are good to grow for pollinators, to the broken food system and what resources peeps at Johnny’s Selected Seeds recommend for beginning farmers. I wrote 34 updates chronicling my journey as a beginning farmer and beekeeper here in Maine. This post will round 2016 out with a total of 50 pieces of writing.

Of course the big news regarding the Runamuk blog and my writing is our new relationship with Johnny’s as our blog-sponsor. Hooray for Johnny’s! I’m hoping to be able to bring on several more sponsors in 2017 for the chance to promote some great local─and green─Maine businesses.

Somerset Beekeepers’

Before the divorce my husband worked off-the-farm and supported our household, while I labored in the garden, with the bees or with goats or children (which often are much more difficult than goats OR bees!); I had a lot more time then for volunteer-work. Since the divorce I’ve been working either full or part-time off-the-farm, all while continuing to farm, keep bees, and homestead. Honestly it’s been more of a struggle to keep up with everything these last couple of years. After 5 years serving as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers, our county’s chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association, I finally stepped down. Unfortunately our group had fizzled and we were no longer seeing the attendance we once did. When I stepped down no one else stepped up to lead the group and the Somerset Beekeepers, sadly enough, has disbanded.

That being said, I’ve left myself available to the UME Somerset County Cooperative Extension as a beekeeping liaison of sorts, in the event the community should have need of me. It’s a good thing I did too! Round about August there was a gentleman beekeeper out in Embden who was working with his bees when he was overtaken suddenly by an allergic reaction to the bee stings. He was taken to the emergency room and his hives were left uncovered, the bees exposed to the elements. This gentleman’s daughter called the extension office, who in turn called me; so Paul and I drove over to Embden to close his hives for him.

Madison Farmers’ Market

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This was the second year we’ve accepted EBT at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

This was the second year that our local farmers’ market was able to accept EBT transactions from SNAP shoppers. We were able to draw in many new shoppers thanks to our participation in the Maine Harvest Buck’s program. Funding we received from the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets enabled the Madison market to give a dollar-for-dollar bonus to customers who purchased food items using their EBT. So if a SNAP shopper spent $20 at the market they received $20 worth of Harvest Bucks vouchers that could be used at any point throughout the season for the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

In Madison there was a new local food ordinance passed which opened up new opportunities for farmers growing and selling food there. Our market supported this movement, however we’re also cautious of it and have discussed at length how this impacts the market and how we want it to apply to farmers selling food at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Above all else we want to be offering fresh, locally produced food that is safe for our friends, families, and communities to eat; all of Madison’s farmers strive to meet the regulations outlined by the authorities for all of the food and products we sell.

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Sonia, of Hide & Go Peep Farm plays the fiddle at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

We had a hellova time with the company who processes our transactions at market. Last year we enrolled in the USDA’s flagship program to be able to accept EBT at the market; we received the equipment and first year of processing free in exchange for a 3-yr contract with a company called WorldPay who would process those electronic transactions for us. We were supposed to have a reduced fee this year, and then next year the market would pay the full sum for the service provided.

Regrettably, WorldPay was impossible to work with: I would call to make changes to our account so that the market could receive payment for the transactions we were processing at-market, wait on hold for 40 minutes before finally getting a representative, then I’d jump through hoops trying to get them the paperwork they wanted, but the changes were never implemented. One day I was on the phone all day going back and forth with WorldPay when I should have been outside working my bees. It was a nightmare.

After repeated attempts to resolve the issue we finally opted to cancel our account with WorldPay. We never received payment for any of the transactions processed at-market this season, and I wound up having to pay my farmers for those EBT and credit card sales out of market-funds. The WorldPay fiasco put our farmers’ market more than $500 in the red this year. Currently I’m working to get a new system in place before the start of the 2017 market-season.

It was difficult for me to keep up even with my work for the farmers’ market while I’m working off-the-farm, but after letting go of the Somerset Beekeepers I was all the more determined to hang on to the market. I did my best to prioritize and put the Harvest Bucks program first and foremost in my list of duties, but managing of meetings, recordkeeping, and promotion of the market and special events suffered some this year. Thankfully the farmers that make up our market have all become close friends and they’ve been understanding and supportive over the last 2 years.

Overall the farmers at the Madison Farmers’ Market dubbed the season a success. They were pleased with the increase in traffic we saw as a result of the Harvest Bucks program. We were able to extend our market into December thanks to an alliance with the Somerset Abbey that allows us to be inside every other Sunday from November til Christmas. We’re all looking forward to the new year and the coming season.

Biggest Lessons Learned

  1. Recordkeeping is as crucial to farming as is planting the seed that grows the crop. Get organized and make the time to document your work, your expenses, and your sales (income).
  2. You need good numbers to get any kind of financing or funding─as in positive income. In farming it’s important to have an instant source of income while your long-term crops mature: that’s why many farmers produce annual vegetables when they first start out.
  3. Owning the land you farm on is the most secure option for farmers. Do whatever it takes to make that happen: improve your credit score, look for a lease-to-own option, reduce your expectations and look at ugly-duckling properties which are typically more affordable. Land-insecurity in farming is hugely detrimental to your business, and leases not geared toward agricultural activity can be your downfall.
  4. Business is business. Farming is a business just any other; take it seriously or no one will take you seriously. When it comes to such crucial matters as land-leases that make up the very foundation of your farm, assume nothing─be sure to cover all details and get it in writing before committing.

Closing the Door on 2016

runamuk-laying-hens
More chicks this year to meet the demand for farm-fresh eggs at market.

I feel like this fall, over the course of the encroaching winter, I’ve examined my life and  let go of a lot of old baggage. I’ve closed the door on one chapter and I’m really looking forward to this new phase as I continue to grow my apiary and farm here in Norridgewock with Paul. What you’ve been reading here is just one woman’s story in the pursuit to generate her income through farming─the farming of bees, no less. I am not unique in the obstacles I’ve faced; land-access and lack of capital are 2 of the biggest challenges beginning farmers have to overcome if they are to succeed. Any individual determined to bootstrap their way to success in farming is going to have similar stories, and not all of us will make it. Some will give up.

But I am still here. Bring on 2017!

Announcing our new blog-sponsor!

I’ve been working on this project for quite some time, and at long last I am able to share this great news with you─Johnny’s Selected Seeds has signed on as a blog-sponsor with Runamuk Acres!

If you’re a follower of the Runamuk blog you’re likely aware of the fact that I’m a beekeeper working to build my apiary into a viable business here in central Maine. I want to support myself and my family through the production of raw honey, over-wintered nucleus colonies and Maine-raised mite-resistant Queens, along with a diverse array of supporting enterprises to create a diversified farm. You probably know that I’m something of an environmentalist and that I advocate for pollinator conservation where and whenever I can. And by chance you know that I work part-time off my farm at Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

at-the-madison-farmers-market
There I am on the left at the Madison Farmers’ Market with fellow vendor, Maria Reynolds of Yellow Place Bakehouse.

However, you may not realize how dedicated I am to supporting my local community.
My family moved around a lot while I was growing up, but I have lived in this part of Maine all my life. Since 2011 I have volunteered in the communities of central Maine. I served 6 years as president of the Somerset Beekeepers, and so far I’ve served 4 years as the market manager for the Madison Farmers’ Market. It was hugely important to me, in my search for land to farm on, that I still be close to my hometowns of Anson and Madison, so that I could continue working for this region.

That’s why when I began thinking about working with sponsors for the Runamuk blog I knew I wanted to promote businesses close to home. But not just any business; I want to put the spotlight on “green” businesses. Businesses that are using environmentally-friendly methods, and who are helping people to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Local Maine companies who’s products and services are well crafted and high quality. The kind of businesses who are driven by people like me─who are giving it their all, doing the best they can day after day to make some kind of a difference in the world. Those are the kinds of businesses I can get behind, and the only kind that I would feel comfortable vouching for.

That’s the kind of company I’ve found at Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

I’ve been working in the Call Center at Johnny’s since January 4th, 2015, with the exception of a few months last fall when I was working at North Star Orchards packing apples. All summer I’ve worked at Johnny’s part-time while still working my own farm and the Runamuk apiary, as well as managing the Madison Farmers’ Market. Johnny’s has been great to me, working with me on my scheduling needs, even when I needed a few days off during the #greatfarmmove, with friends and colleagues there to help me up when life knocks me down. I’ve gotten to know the company and it’s employees fairly well so it was only natural to approach Johnny’s first as I seek to expand my reach.

For those who are new to the blog you can read more about my experience coming to work at Johnny’s Selected Seeds here.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ company mission is: helping families, friends, and communities to feed one another by providing superior seeds, tools, information, and service.

They’re helping people grow food. They really do provide superior products, and they truly want to see their customers succeed. That’s why their catalogs are chalk-full of useful information, why their website hosts a “Grower’s Library” with invaluable videos and calculating-tools; and that’s also why the company employs people like me─so that when a customer calls with a question they’re getting honest advice from farmers and gardeners who have been doing it all their lives.

In this article recently published at Longitudes─the UPS’ blog about global business trends─David Melhorn (Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Johnny’s Selected Seeds) is talking about Johnny’s commitment to customer and employee education, how it has fostered loyalty and the longevity of the company. In the article Dave says:

What makes us unique? It’s not just our product. It’s the information we provide…. We don’t have a gimmicky customer loyalty program. We have a higher quality seed that performs as advertised – and experts who know what they’re talking about.

That’s what it’s all about. Quality products and outstanding customer service.

And that’s why I’m proud to align Runamuk with Johnny’s. Be sure to show them some love, click on the Johnny’s button now located in the sidebar to explore their site, see what’s on sale, or watch a video in their Grower’s Library. And when you call for a catalog or to place an order be sure to tell them Runamuk sent you!

Thanks for following along! If you enjoy our posts please consider subscribing to receive notification of new posts directly to your in-box, OR support Runamuk by sharing a favorite post with a friend who might also enjoy following our journey! Sharing is caring!

Gaining perspective

Murphy and I, along with a good friend of mine, climbed Pleasant Pond Mountain in Caratunk on Friday, reconnecting with another passion of mine: hiking and climbing mountains.

hiking the at
The AT trail up Pleasant Pond Mountain.

Not the scaling rock kind of mountain-climbing where you need harnesses and specialty rope─noooo, I’m not that coordinated, lol. But the Appalachian-Trail kind of hiking and mountain climbing for sure. I’ve even toyed with the idea of hiking the AT, but so far I’ve just climbed a few random mountains across Maine and New Hampshire.

I admit I’ve been pretty down and broken-hearted about losing Jim’s farm─going through the whole gamut of emotions one would typically expect when they lose a loved one: grief, sadness, anger, self-doubt…more sadness. And just when I think I have a handle on it all, there comes a rain shower falling so beautifully upon the meadow, or a glorious sunset over the mountain view, and it puts me to tears all over again.

Despite the emotional roller coaster I am picking myself up. I know these are the challenges beginning farmers face. I know I am not the only one going through this kind of upheaval; at least 2 other farming-friends of mine are experiencing farm-displacement this season. I did everything I could to try to make it work at Jim’s place. Believe me when I say I’ve exhausted all options and I am exhausted. Their brother is long gone and the Murphy family want to sell the place and be done with it. At this point in time there is nothing that I can do to bridge the gap to secure this farm for Runamuk. I have to accept that, and so do my supporters.

This is not the end for Runamuk or for me, but it has made me question who I am, what I’m doing, and what’s actually important to me. I can make a living on less land for sure. I don’t need the big house and the big mortgage only holds me back.

It’s the dream that tears me up the most I suppose. My grand dream for a pollinator conservation center here in this region of Maine. Picture a park-like setting akin to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, with varying types of gardens and meadows geared toward different types of pollinators. There would be walking paths through the gardens, meadows and forest, will plaques identifying the habitat and informing visitors about the flowers planted there and the pollinators who visit them. There would be bird houses for a variety of species, a bat house, and an education center where visitors of all ages could come to play and learn. Picture a shaded area with picnic tables, and imagine rustic wooden benches in secluded sections of the trail where visitors could stop and sit awhile to admire the sound of insects pollinating, to bird watch, or to meditate. And there would be a view of the western Maine mountains to top it off.

maine mtns
Personal note: I have a mountain fetish.

Imagine the kind of tourism that such a park might bring to the economically depressed region that is Somerset County. With papermills closing and much of our manufacturing jobs outsourced overseas this region needs more businesses and more people coming to the area to spend their money.

Madison-Anson is along the route between the coast and the mountains and Canada. There is a lot of traffic moving through our area heading in one direction or the other, but we see very little business from that traffic. This conservation center could entice more travelers to stop for a visit on their way north or south, and I hoped it would bring some tourists away from the coast to visit inland Maine.

That’s the dream I have.

view from pleasant pond mountain
Maine’s coast is beautiful too, but the state’s western mountain ranges are glorious too.

But that dream is out of reach at the moment. I’m putting it aside; tabling it for the time being, while I focus my attention on the apiary and building an income. I need stability and security after all this, and I know I can generate an income with the bees, and─hopefully─with my writing.

Atop Pleasant Pond Mtn_Selfie
Murphy and I at the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain.

I’m choosing to focus on the things that are most important to me. Breaking away from the industrialized and commercialized mainstream, growing food to feed my kids and myself, moving toward a more sustainable existence, being close to nature, spending time with the people in my life, and sharing my experiences and knowledge with others in hopes of inspiring more to do the same.

Those are the things most important to me. Sometimes I need to climb a mountain to regain that perspective, to connect with the Earth and remember why I started all of this. Through all of this I have had friends and family, and many of my followers and supporters─lifting me up, listening to me as I work things out, encouraging me to not give up, and just being there to offer a hug or a laugh. I am so grateful to each and every one of you, and I want you to know that I am O.K. Runamuk will persevere, and I will continue to be a part of the Madison-Anson area communities in some form or fashion.

Stay tuned folks!

 

Market season underway

It was cool and overcast Sunday as the Madison Farmers’ Market came together at the Main Street Park in Madison. Fine friends I had scarcely seen since our last winter market back in December, cars and trucks loaded with wares, gear and market-equipment, some with their children in tow. Winter is finally over and spring has come to our part of the world.

Market Banner
The town of Madison sprang for a new banner for the market this year!

There are always a few kinks to work out on the first market of the season. I was still working 4 shifts a week at Johnny’s and then picked up an extra, so market preparations at Runamuk were somewhat sporadic. I spent my Saturday evening wrapping soap and labeling salves, and still wound up running around like a chicken with my head cut off on Sunday morning because I hadn’t had time to gather all of my market-equipment beforehand.

If you’ve never vended at an outdoor event, you might not realize all of the supplies and equipment you need to have with you. Lots of little things like: duct tape, twine or rope, ink pens, chalk, a first-aid kit. Big things like: a folding table, a tent, signs. And don’t forget about yourself─always bring water and snacks or food of some sort, and dress appropriately for the weather.

And if you’re bringing children along that’s a whole separate bucket of worms!

This is the Madison market’s 4th season. We’re still a small market, with just 7 vendors. But we’ve got a really nice group of dedicated people working to bring local food and products to the community. The farmers who make up the Madison Farmers’ Market are: Josh Magoon of Willow Lane Farm in Harmony, Sonia and Jeff of Hide-and-Go-Peep Farm in East Madison, Maria Reynolds of Yellow Place Bakehouse in Solon, Mike Bowman of Groundswell Seed Farm in Embden, Crymson Sullivan of Sidehill Farm in Madison, and Pete and Carol Vigneault of P & C Pottery in Madison. Oh─and don’t forget me!

Our market is held on Sundays because we didn’t want to try to compete with the larger and much more established Skowhegan Farmers’ Market, which has been held on Saturdays for nearly twenty years in the next town over. We’ve found that 10-2 works well for us, and despite some initial misgivings about our chosen day of the week, we’ve developed a regular following of shoppers committed to buying fresh produce and products from Madison-area farmers.

These farmers have come out in rain and snow, cold and wind to be at market to offer their wares to the community of Madison. They get up early to harvest vegetables, or stay up late packaging seeds; for those with livestock on their farms it takes a fair amount of planning and preparation to be able to leave the farm to spend half the day at market. That involves making sure all critters are fed and watered, and that they’re safely secured to be left unattended for hours on end. These are just some of the things farmers have to deal with to bring their goods to you at the farmers’ market.

We’re at market to sell our wares, yes─payday comes once a week and farming is serious business; farmers have bills too. Yet the paycheck is only one of the reasons that motivates farmers to do what they do. Farming is the purest form of activism; farmers are committed to improving their communities through food, to improving the environment through farming. And through the relationships we nurture at market we can affect some measure of change in our community. We can educate the public about vegetables and food, and be the link that people need in order to fully understand what good food is, how to cook it, preserve it, and appreciate it.

Harvest Bucks in Action
Happy SNAP shoppers at market!

So there were a few kinks at market our first Sunday back…I didn’t realize until I was loading the car that the cement blocks I usually haul along to weight down my tent at market I’d absconded with for the beehives last fall. And in my frenzy of preparations and stresses at Runamuk, I’d forgotten to prepare a SNAP shopping sheet for our market’s SNAP program. Thanks to the efforts of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets,  Harvest Bucks program allows our market to offer bonus dollars to SNAP shoppers, which can be used for fresh fruits and veggies at market. We made-do, though, and had our first SNAP shopper of the season come through the market. Yay!

Stay tuned for another action-packed season!

Growing season

It’s been a long few months leading up to spring and the start of the growing season. Temperatures have fluctuated unpredicatably from one week to the next, sunny and warm one week and frigid and snowing the next. But at last the weather pattern is smoothing out. I can hear the peepers in the pond at night, new shoots are poking up around the farm, and the first blush of green grass is spreading across the fields and pastures.

Big news! I’m applying for a loan!

runamuk apiaryAfter much thought and deliberation I’ve decided to apply for funding to inject some capital into my business so that I can grow it big enough to be able to support Jim’s farm financially in the not-too-distant future.

I can grow my business slowly and avoid debt, but time is against me. The Murphys can’t carry the place indefinitely, so I’ve decided to seek a loan to invest in more bees and equipment in order to scale up to a size that will allow me to generate the income needed to pay the bills and to secure Runamuk’s future on Jim’s property. There are a number of great programs available for beginning farmers and for female farmers, and I have good credit so I’m confident that I will qualify for something.

A li’l backstory

For those who are new to the Runamuk blog, Jim Murphy was the former owner of the farm that I am now leasing. He was killed tragically in a car accident in November 2013 and his property was left in the hands of his brothers. Jim was the product of one of those big baby-boomer families of the post WWII era, so he has many brothers and sisters, but other than a nephew who resides in Madison, they’re all out of state. Just as it is for me, the farm was very precious to Jim, and his family want to uphold the principles and ideals that Jim stood for: sustainable living, friends and family, and community, however it’s very difficult for the Murphys to maintain Jim’s beloved from afar.

Enter me and my pursuit to continue farming in the Madison-Anson area. I reached out to the Murphys after nearly 6 months of searching for a new home for my hives and chickens, and together we negotiated an arrangement that allowed me to get back on my feet following my divorce. The whole of Jim’s family have been nothing but supportive, understanding and encouraging since I moved into the old farmhouse last June, but eventually the property needs to be able to support itself. Runamuk needs to be able to pay the bills, because as much as I love my colleagues at Johnny’s, I do not intend to spend the majority of my life in an office cubicle. I’m a farmer first and foremost and that’s how I want to make my money─not by answering the phone. I don’t even like phones!

The plan in a nut-shell

To that end, I’ve spent the last 4 months updating Runamuk’s business plan, tailoring my plans to suit the land and the resources I have at my disposal. Bees will continue to be Runamuk’s primary focus, with the goal of establishing 10 new colonies this year, and 20 more next year─in addition to making my own nucleus colonies using the methods Mike Palmer spoke about at last fall’s MSBA conference (read more about that in this article). I’ll continue to make beeswax soaps and salves, continue to host workshops, and continue writing, but I’d like to expand my chicken flock for egg-production, and I’d like to further diversify my operation by bringing sheep to the property. Jim’s farm has about 75 acres in open pasture, so my intention is to use rotational grazing of my poultry and sheep to maintain the pasture to create prime bee-forage.

With 10 nucleus colonies ordered and due to arrive in May, I’m right down to the wire on the loan-process. I’ve been working with Farm Credit East which offers a FarmStart Loan with a discounted interest rate for beginning farmers, and the benefit of using livestock and equipment as collateral since many new farmers do not yet own the farms they’re working (like me!). I have a meeting with their representative and Somerset County loan officer this coming Wednesday.

Support staff

Farming is a lot of work and sometimes you need an extra pair of hands in order to get the job done. I’m happy to announce that I have taken on an apprentice! I don’t have the funds available to pay anyone, but in exchange for room and board I managed to wrangle some help around the farm. I also have a prospective college-student looking for work-experience on a farm in exchange for room and board over the summer. Having so much space in Jim’s big old farmhouse is proving to be a huge asset!

In the garden

One of my major goals is to produce enough food to feed my household all year, so I’ve started my tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, and ordered 75 pounds of seed-potatoes along with 350+ onion plants through Johnny’s. I’ve mapped out a garden plan and laid it out according to the available growing space. Using Johnny’s Seed-Starting Date Calculator and their Succession-Sowing Calculator (check out this link to see the various interactive tools and calculators offered on the Johnny’s website) I recorded in my farm-planner my prospective sowing dates for a diverse array of crops.

I’ve also started a myriad of perennial flowers and herbs with the intention of establishing a pollinator garden in the bed that I’ve dubbed “the Rockwall Garden”. As ever before, pollinator conservation continues to be a primary goal in my farming methods. What’s more I use some of these herbs in my salves, so it just makes good financial sense to grow and process them myself rather than buy them in. Things like echinacea, lemon balm, hyssop, lavendar and comfrey─to name a few.

To prepare those new beds for planting I laid cardboard and either mulched hay or leaves on top to smother the grasses and weeds that had grown in since Jim’s absence. The smothering method is slower than tilling, but I planned ahead and started the process last year. It’s working great for the twin-beds, but for the Rockwall Garden the weeds managed to come right up through the cardboard and mulch late last summer. So a few weeks ago I got the jump on it and laid black-plastic over every square inch of that 15’x30′ bed. I prefer to avoid plastic in most cases, but I’m serious about planting that pollinator garden so I wanted to show those weeds that I mean business!

Chickens and eggs!

laying hens at runamukThe chicks that I invested in last fall are now 6.5 months old and with the increasing daylight hours they have begun to lay. The flock is not at full egg-production just yet, but they’re gaining.

Once the pastures green up I’ll move the birds out of the barn and back across the street into a mobile coop with the intention of rotating them around the fields. My apprentice and I have spent considerable time reviewing various models for mobile coops and chicken tractors, and I’ve decided upon John Suscovich’s model. He offers a detailed plan with a materials list that saves me hours of research and planning. Check it out!

Note: For those who don’t know, I am a BIG fan of John’s. I avidly follow his “Growing Farms” podcast, and I watch all of John’s YouTube videos which are super informative. I highly recommend any beginning farmer (or even established farmers) follow John’s work.

Improving marketing & distribution

runamuk's mailboxI can sell my soaps and salves, eggs and excess produce at the Madison Farmers’ Market, but to increase sales I need to get my products further out into the world. I’ve been working on a product list to send to local retailers, and I’ll be making some changes to Runamuk’s online shopping cart to better promote my beeswax products on the world wide web. I’m also working on a media kit for the blog in hopes of recruiting local sponsors in exchange for ad-space. But I’m most excited about making a roadside sign for Runamuk; the mailbox is the closest Runamuk has come to having a business sign, and I think it’s long overdue.

Leaning my farm

At the repeated urging of John Suscovich in his podcasts and videos, I bought Ben Hartman’s “The Lean Farm“. With so much going on I’ve only gotten about halfway through the book, but the concept of reducing waste on the farm has me re-evaluating how I work and manage Runamuk. When I finally manage to finish the book I’ll do a review on the blog, but right now I’m implementing improved recordkeeping and data-mining, cleaning and organizing the farm to improve productivity, and looking for ways to eliminate waste to increase profitability.

Market season!

madison farmers marketIn between all of this, I’ve been plugging away at the Madison Farmers’ Market, for which I serve as market manager. Our local farmers’ market is held on Sundays at the Main Street Park in Madison between 10am and 2pm beginning May 1st and running through October. I’ve recently attended a workshop hosted by the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets to learn how to implement and use their Harvest Bucks program so that our market can offer bonus bucks for fruits and vegetables to SNAP shoppers. Our vendors gathered together last week for a paint-party to create some new market signs, and the town of Madison sprang for a new banner for us, so I designed that with our market logo and got the banner up on the fence at the park. We have some exciting things planned this year, but that’s a whole separate blog-post, lol!

Stay the course

Things are a little tentative right now; there’s a lot riding on it and time is not on my side. It’s hard to say if I’ll actually get this loan─like I said I have good credit, I’ve worked hard to keep it that way, but I don’t like to count my chicks before they’ve all hatched. I have a plan B and a plan C waiting in the wings, but naturally plan A is the preferred course. All I can do is to stay the course. I’ll continue to put my best foot forward, continue to work hard, and continue to have faith that things will all work out. Stay tuned folks!

Saying farewell to North Star Orchards

At North Star Orchards

I never did get around to writing much about my work at the orchard. It’s been a hectic fall season for me; working 5 days a week at the orchard made farming very difficult, especially once I found myself living here alone. It was incredibly challenging to me to find time for everything─for Runamuk or the farmers’ market, for the BeeLine and the Somerset Beekeepers, let alone my own writing and this blog. But I treasure the time I spent working with the Dimock family at North Star Orchards; it was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot during the 4 months I worked in the packing room there.

At North Star OrchardsIt’s incredibly fascinating to me to see how other farms work─what their operation consists of, the methods they use, the principles and values that the farmers hold and how that propels them. I like learning about how and why someone became a farmer and the story of how their farm came to be, how they built or created their farm, their successes and their failures─it’s all very interesting to me and I am able to sift through their stories to find very valuable information that I can use here at Runamuk. Farms with a long-standing history are even more fascinating!

Everett Dimock
Here Everett Dimock is hauling empty bins out into the orchard for the pickers to fill with apples.

North Star Orchards is a family-owned and operated farm located just outside of Madison, Maine, sitting high above the Kennebec River. From the vista in the orchard you can look out across Maine’s western mountains splayed out across the horizon. The orchard consists of 35 acres of apple trees, a cold storage and packing facility, pick-your-own apples, a cidermill and a farm store. The farm itself dates back to the mid-1800s, but Judy and Everett Dimock purchased the orchard in 1976 and established North Star Orchards. The farm is picturesque, and the Dimocks are good people.

Everett Dimock attended Cornell University for pomology (the study of fruit trees) and he has spent a lifetime propagating apple trees and producing beautiful fruit. His wife Judy manages the packing room and the business side of their farm. They’ve learned to work together so that their business can support not only themselves, but also their two children, Jennifer and Robert, who are now grown and working alongside their parents on the farm. Robert’s two teenaged children also work on the farm, after school and on weekends.

apple bins
Once the bins have been filled with apples they are brought into the barn and stored in a cooler.

North Star Orchards produces about 20,000 bushels of apples a year and they sell a third of those direct to customers, either through their farm store or via pick-your-own; the other two-thirds are sold wholesale to local Hannaford stores. The cold storage and packing rooms are located in the barn, and I worked there grading and packing apples along with 2 other ladies employed by the Dimocks.

washing the apples
The apples are washed before they go through the grading machine, which also buffs the apples and sorts them by size.
apples on the grader
This is the grader where I worked to package the apples.

During my time at North Star Orchards I learned about much more than just apples. Sure, I picked up some knowledge about growing fruit trees (I’ve been invited back in the spring to learn more about the fruit trees too!), and some information about apple diseases and pests that will prove useful. However, for this beginning farmer─it was seeing how the Dimocks manage their business that was most valuable.

What I learned:

I already knew that record-keeping was an important part of managing a business, but I’ve struggled with it here at Runamuk. Seeing the charts and the data collection that the Dimocks employ gave me a better understanding of the kind of data I should be collecting in my own operation, how to organize it─and how to track and apply the figures to better manage my enterprize. Record-keeping is going to be a big focus for me in 2016.

totes of applesObviously not all aspects of the Dimock’s business at North Star Orchards is going to be applicable to Runamuk, as our farms focus on different crops. But learning about the packaging and marketing of apples offered me some insight and has inspired some new ideas that I can translate for use at Runamuk.

3lb bagged applesI feel like I’ve gained a better understanding of the wholesale food system too, which can seem a little foreign if you’re only focusing on direct-to-customer sales as I have.

 

 

tours in the packing room
My silver-haired ladies of the packing room and elementary school tours─so much fun!

Let me take a moment to say one more time how wonderful it was to work with the team at North Star Orchards. At 35 I was the baby of the group, working alongside a silver-haired older generation, and I’m not sure that the folks at the orchard were fully prepared for me and my youthful intensity. I relished the chance to learn from these people, they were graceful and poised and wise and had a lifetime of stories and experiences to draw from, and I picked their brains, listened attentively to their stories, and absorbed everything I possibly could while I was with them.

judy dimock
Judy Dimock

I think that the single-most important piece of information I took away from North Star Orchards was a bit of advice I garnered from Judy. While Everett has real skill for growing superior apples and I admire him greatly as an exemplary farmer─behind every great man is an even greater woman…Judy Dimock is a truly great woman. She was a physical therapist before she and Everett bought the orchard, and then she dedicated her life to building up their farm-business and supporting their family. She is a hellova business woman, the matriarch of the group and I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for her. You know I had to pick her brain while I stood there packing apples!

One of the struggles the Dimocks have faced with their orchard is the need for hired help─apples are a crop that are highly dependent upon hired labor. Like many orchards in the state, the Dimocks participate in a work-program that brings migrant workers to the farm every fall for the apple harvest. And then the Dimocks are dependent upon hired labor (like yours truly) to get the apples graded and packaged so they can be sold at market.

Because of this, and probably partly because I’ve been worried about the feasibility of a single woman’s ability to farm on her own, Judy urged me to build my farm business up so that I can run, operate, and manage all aspects of the enterprise on my own and without being dependent upon hired help─or a man, for that matter.

It seems so obvious now, but apparently I’d needed it pointed out to me.

Being forced to start over again, having to move Runamuk to this new location at Jim Murphy’s farm in Starks, means I can build my business to meet MY needs, and to suit this particular piece of property. Judy also pointed out that I’m in a great position, since I have no overhead right now. The possibilities are endless.

heart appleI’ve been asked by a few people if I’ll go back next fall, and in all honesty I admit that I hope I don’t need to. After all, ultimately I want to work full-time on my own farm and make my own farming dream a reality, and as I mentioned earlier in this post, it was really difficult to manage all that I have going on while working at the orchard. But if my situation come next August requires me to go back to the orchard I’d be happy to be able to work again with the Dimocks and the other orchard employees─providing they’ll have me after all my youthful exuberance, antics and mischief, lol. I’ll always be grateful for the season I spent working at North Star Orchards, for the opportunity to work and learn, the chance to grow, and most especially for new friends made.

One random act of kindness

random act of kindness

Some people may not have much faith left in society and their fellow man-kind, but I certainly do. I’ve seen it demonstrated to me personally time and time again, and every act of kindness fills me with warmth and love and gratitude, and lends me the strength to go another day. I’ve had help along my journey, and people continue to help me. Sometimes I do ask for help, if somewhat reluctantly─hey, I got my pride too! but in all seriousness, I know when to ask for help and so I will…if I have to. But sometimes I don’t ask for anything at all and I am surprised with a generous act of kindness bestowed upon me.

This is the story of one such random act of kindness.

random act of kindnessI have some issues with my feet. I’m flat-footed, and while I was in basic training for the Army─back when I was fresh out of high school─I broke not one-but several of the bones in my right foot. I was put in a cast and discharged from the military with an uncharacterized discharge. The bones healed and the cast was removed and I continued on with my eighteen-year old life. But the foot was never the same; when I waitressed (that’s what I did at that point in my life) long days or nights that foot and ankle would get so sore! Once I finally sat and relaxed at the end of the day the tendons in my foot seemed to seize up and I couldn’t walk without limping, and I wasn’t even 20.

That went on for years and because the left foot was continuously trying to compensate for my bad right foot, I developed some soreness in the left ankle as well. It always seemed to be worse in the springtime, after a long lazy winter when all of a sudden I was outside raring to go again: gardening, digging, planting and pruning…and at the end of the day I’d be satisfied from my labors, but sore and limping once more.

Over the years I eventually learned that staying active in the first place really helped to keep the muscles in my feet strong. Practicing yoga helped to work out the tendons in my feet and legs too; but good footgear really has been the key to saving my poor little hardworking feet.

Even still, knowing that I needed sturdy footgear with arch support that could take the wear and tear of a farming lifestyle, I’ve never spent more than $25 to $50 on shoes. I own a total of 2 pairs: a pair of lightweight sneakers and a pair of hiking boots. I paid $3 apiece for them at the St. Sebastian thrift store in Madison.

The hiking boots see much more use, and it showed in their condition; the soles were coming apart from the rest of the shoe, there were holes where the seams were giving way, and somehow my feet had begun to swim inside them. It was time for a new pair of boots.

So I went into Reny’s and for the first time EVER in my life I picked out a pair of footgear that was priced over $100; these were quality Timberland waterproof leather hiking boots and I went and put them on layaway there. I was pleased as punch with myself for making such a commitment to─well to myself. Afterall, how can I get all the hard work of farming done if I don’t take care of myself, and your feet are a pretty important part of the body for accomplishing most labors, lol.

I dutifully went in every week after getting paid by the orchard, and put another $20 on the layaway balance.

But these last few weeks with the added expense of heating this big old farmhouse, and now living and farming on just one income, I’d been struggling to pay even a small amount on the layaway. The balance remained at $64.44 and my boots remained in the basement at Reny’s…

Then out of the blue yesterday I received a call from Barbara at Reny’s. At first I was afraid that she was going to tell me that my payment was overdue and that I was at risk of losing my boots! but instead Barbara said that a certain “Santa Claus” had come in and paid the remaining balance on my layaway. I could pick up the boots anytime.

Can you believe it! Some blessed guardian angel paid the $64.44 so that I could have my new boots!

farming bootsOnly a handful of people knew about these boots and the layaway, so I have my suspicions as to who it could have been. And to that person I say thank you so much, from the bottom of my humble heart. Thank you.

That is the story of how one random act of kindness affected me. And that’s just one example─I have other stories of how people have generously helped me out along the way. I only hope that I am deserving enough of their good opinion of me.

If you watch the news or even the facebook newsfeed, there’s a lot of negativity out there in the big wide world. It’s easy to focus on the bad events, horrific shootings, bombings and war, drug abuse and crime. Even in our day to day, mundane lives, it’s easy to focus on the negative, when we really have so much to be thankful for, and little random acts of kindness like this one happen every day, all over the country, and all over the world. I’ve seen it. lived it. and on more than one occasion.

It’s random acts of kindness like this one that lend me to believe that most people are good at heart. This is why I still have faith in society. And why I do what I do─for the Somerset Beekeepers, the Madison Farmers’ Market, and as a farmer and environmentalist. Kind actions and generous hearts spur me on and encourage me to share the love and hope that I feel in my own soul.

new boots

This week I was able to wrangle heating oil and firewood to keep the pipes from freezing and to keep me warm too. I was able to pay my car payment (only 3 left now!), and I am eager to be going back to the Somerset Abby this Sunday for another of our Farmers’ & Artisan’s Winter Market. I’m thankful just to be alive, to be here on this farm, and to have the opportunity to make the most of every day.

And I am especially grateful today for my new boots. They fit my feet like a glove! I picked them up after work today, before returning home to the farm; Murphy and I can scarcely wait to take a walk this weekend down through the pastures!