Shifting Focus

shifting focus at runamuk acres conservation farm

After spending the last 10 years fixated on bees, I am finally shifting focus! From this day forward, Runamuk will no longer be all about bees and pollinator conservation! Gasp!

shifting focus at runamuk acres conservation farm

Bee-Fever

I became enthralled with bees quite unexpectedly. Though I’d been the proverbial tomboy as a child, I’d never been much of a “bug-person”. It wasn’t until my ex-husband introduced me to insects because he found them interesting, that I began to gain some appreciation for those creatures. My journey into homesteading and self-sufficiency progressed, and I brought home that first nucleus colony back in 2010…by the end of that summer I was consumed by “bee-fever”.

My ex-husband once told me that he half hoped I would get tired of it eventually. I really was hyper-focused on bees and indeed, they have consumed my entire life for the last decade. I can’t blame the guy for wanting that fanaticism to abate a little.

Over the course of these last 10 years that zeal has faded some… My focus has gradually shifted from bees to encompass all pollinators, and I got into pollinator conservation because I thought I could do the greatest good for the world by promoting those keystone creatures.

Excited About Soil

Now that Runamuk has it’s own forever-farm, I’ve become uber-excited about soil. I’ve learned that soil is habitat. This habitat isn’t just physical support to hold plants in place, it’s a whole world of lifeforms who’ve evolved together with plants over billions of years. They are all reliant upon one another for their continued existence. So even more critical to life on Earth than pollinators, is the life that lives within the soil.

soil healthWorking the land here these last 2 seasons has inspired me to include soil’s microbial life in my definition of “beneficial insects”. Rather than promoting only pollinators, I am now keen to work with soil to also encourage life below ground in order to better propagate life above it.

No Longer Selling Bees

On that note, I’ve decided that it is no longer my ambition to sell bees. The investment in equipment to be able to raise mated-Queens is ridiculous, and I don’t have the time or skill to make my own. What’s more, that kind of operation requires copious amounts of time and energy. If I gave up everything else that is Runamuk to focus exclusively on bees, I could succeed (if the financial investment were not also an issue). However, “everything else” is too important to me to give up: the garden, egg-production, and my lovely new sheep…not to mention my kids…. I see a lot of men doing this kind of work (especially men in their retirement), and it works for them because they either don’t have kids at home anymore, or they’re not the ones responsible for childcare.

There’s also the fact that bees are highly unreliable. Every winter there are colony-losses; it’s just a matter of how many. I’ve had winters where my apiary has been entirely wiped out, or very nearly. Now that I am responsible for the longevity of a property of my own, I’m wanting to invest in less-risky ventures.

That’s not to say that I’m giving up bees entirely! Let’s not be silly here lol; of course I’m still going to raise bees! I’m just going to focus on producing honey and beeswax products, rather than also trying to raise bees to sell to other beekeepers. Runamuk will continue to grow with vegetables, chickens and sheep, and the apiary may or may not reach the 50 hives I had once envisioned. That’s OK by me.

Shifting Focus

Invertebrates and microbial-life are small─sometimes teeny-tiny. They are easily overlooked or disregarded by man, whose ego has rather surpassed the reality of his station upon the Earth. Yet, these creatures are vital to life on this planet. I don’t claim to know all the answers, but to me these 3 things are clear:

  1. Without soil-life (invertbrate and microbial life-forms who reside in the soil) plants cannot thrive.
  2. Without insects to pollinate plants cannot reproduce.
  3. Plant-life feeds our planet: human, animal, and even the atmosphere.

It doesn’t get any more basic than that.

Furthermore, when you look at systems in nature─the relationships that other species have formed with one another are all about the mutual survival of either partner. To ensure the survival of our own species, we need to ensure the survival of insects and plant-life. I truly believe it is Man’s responsibility to look after the Earth.

rotational grazing sheep and chickens

The Littles

Does anybody else remember that Saturday morning cartoon, “The Littles”? Or perhaps you’ve read “The Borrowers”, or seen “Arrietty” the Studio Ghibli anime? Little people living under the floor boards is not what I mean in this instance lol, although it might be a good analogy… I’ve decided to to shift my focus just a teeny bit to dedicate Runamuk to “the Littles”, as I like to call them: bees, pollinators, beneficial insects─basically invertebrates in general─but also soil-microbes, fungi and essential bacteria.

For years I’ve been using bee-friendly methods of farming that benefit invertebrates on the whole. Now I also have strategies for working the land here in such a way that will improve the quality of the soil, boosting populations of Littles living within the soil, which will help plant-life here to flourish and in turn promote the Littles living above the soil. Having strong populations of Littles both above and below the ground will benefit the entire ecosystem here at Runamuk, which benefits both farmer and the community this farm serves. It’s a win-win situation.

Giddy Over Soil

There’s just something about soil that makes me giddy with excitement. I’ve always loved working with soil─it’s one of the biggest reasons I enjoy gardening and growing food. It smells good. Soil seriously makes me happy. I feel more connected when I’m working with soil. Dedicating myself to working the soil and promoting the Littles above and within the soil feels like a natural next step for this farmer, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this new focus will take me─and Runamuk! Stay tuned folks!

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your inbox. OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Garden Cover-Cropping at Runamuk

garden cover cropping

Last week was all about cover-cropping the garden here at Runamuk. The chickens had completed their work and I had my new broadfork, along with some seed to put down; there’s something particularly intimate and romantic about working soil, so I was especially jacked up for the project.

garden cover cropAside from the continued focus on the Runamuk apiary, getting the chickens established and prepping the garden for next year are my main goals this first season at the Hive House. Above all else, I’m concerned with the long-term agroecology of my new farm. Because we are all connected on this planet, and because healthy soils are fundamental to the overall profitability and sustainability of my farm, I’ve made it my priority to start with the soil and work my way up.

A Word About “Agroecology”

Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agriculture systems.

The agroecologist views any farming system primarily with an ecologist’s eye; that is, it is not firstly economic (created for commodity and profit), nor industrial (modeled after a factory). Agroecologists do not unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture, but instead they assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with the natural, social and human assets.

This method of agriculture requires a deeper understanding of the complex long-term interactions among resources, people and the environment. Since a love for nature and my fellow man is at the heart of Runamuk, this is how I choose to run my farm.

Prepping the Soil for a Cover-Crop

While there is indeed an existing garden─approximately 25 feet by 80─it was only growing weeds when we arrived at the end of June. I put the chickens on the plot to let them do the work for me, and in 5 short weeks they managed to eliminate the weeds entirely, exposing bare ground for cultivation. They really did an amazing job, and─as an added benefit, the patch got fertilized.

garden when we arrived
This is what the garden looked like when we first arrived at our new #foreverfarm.
chickens working the garden
Here are the chickens at work on the garden.
chicken prepped garden
Once the ground was exposed I moved the chickens over and the soil could be prepped for cover-cropping.

Up til this point I’d only shuffled the fencing along; moving the chicken tractors and the fencing to an entirely new spot while still keeping the birds inside was a little challenging, but I got it all in the end─without any shenanigans, I might add. I’ve put them on a section of earth just next door to the original plot, which I’ve dubbed “The Garden Adjacent”, with the intention of expanding the garden to double the size.

Once I had the chickens off the garden, I eagerly took up my new broadfork and set to work.

broadforkI’ve always loved digging in the dirt. Love love LOVE it! The manual labor, the smell of the earth, the glimpse of microbial life beneath the soil-surface. And I’ve always been particularly partial to my spading fork. The broadfork is simply a larger version─with TWO handles─and easier on my back and body to use. Even still, it took a bit to really get the hang of using the broadfork, and to develop a rhythm with it.

Now─I’m in pretty decent shape for my (nearly) 38 years, but the broadfork offers a really great full-body workout and it turns out that I just couldn’t fork that garden continuously for the 10 hours it took me to complete the job. On Sunday I did 4 hours, then I had to take time off from Johnny’s to get the forking done before the rain that was forecasted for Wednesday. I left the office early on Monday, forked the garden til it was too dark to see, and then was back at it come sun-up Tuesday morning and went to work late that day. Thankfully this is a slow time of year in the Call Center, and my supervisor and colleagues there can allow me some flexibility.

Peas-and-Oats

johnny's peas and oats mix
The peas-and-oats cover-crop mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Once the cultivation with the broadfork was complete, I happily I brought out the seed I’d bought to cover the garden with. I went with Johnny’s peas-and-oats mix because it’s a super easy to manage cover-crop. The peas─like any legume─help to fix nitrogen in the soil, and the oats serve as a nurse crop, sheltering the seed during germination and then offering crop support for the pea plants. Both are annuals and will be killed this fall by the first hard frost we get, and if I leave the plant residue on the plot it will provide a great mulch layer for my new garden.

I followed Johnny’s recommended sowing rate of 5lbs/1000sq.ft. for the peas-and-oats and bought (2) 5-pound sacks to do that 2,000sq.ft section of earth, along with a package of inoculant.

Question: What is inoculant? and do you really need it?

garden combination incoluant
Garden Combination Inoculant─good for ALL legume-family crops.

This is something we are frequently asked in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. What I tell folks is that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t inoculate your legumes; you’ll still get a crop of peas or beans, or whatever it is. Inoculant is simply a packet full of microorganisms that are specific to legume-family plants, which aid in the legume’s nitrogen-fixing abilities. Personally however, I’ve always felt that anything I could do to help the little guys in the soil do their work of facilitating the availability of nutrients and water for my plants is worth the extra $5 and an extra step. But that’s just me; you’ll have to make that call for yourself.

To apply the inoculant I simply took a pail, dumped the first 5-pound sack of seed into it and added half the contents from the package of inoculant. I stirred the seed around with my hand (it’s not harmful in the least), seeking to ensure that all of the seed was evenly coated with the dark powdery inoculant.

Seeding the Garden for a Cover-Crop

It just happened to take 16 passes up and down the garden with the broadfork to complete this first half of our new garden, so it was easy to plan how I would walk down through the plot with the seed and hopefully ration it so that I had enough to do the entire space. I knew Johnny’s said I’d bought enough to do the job, but I also know from experience that when sowing by hand it’s easy to sow too heavy, and then you run out of seed before you cover the whole plot.

And even with my experience and careful planning, I was still too heavy-handed with the first half of the peas-and-oats mix. I found myself rifling through my seed-stash looking for something I could mix with the second half to stretch it out so that I could get the rest of the garden cover-cropped. Lucky for me I work at a seed-company and have access to “up-for-grabs” seeds; my “seed-stash” is sick…no, seriously─I have a problem, lol.

dwarf essex rape via johnnys selected seeds
Dwarf Essex Rape cover-crop; photo courtesy Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

I found a 10-pound sack of Dwarf Essex Rape seed; score! Rape is a member of the brassica-family and somewhat cold-tolerant, which is really ideal because sometimes we can have several more weeks of growing season after that initial killing frost, so this plant will linger into the fall, but still won’t survive our Maine winter so I won’t have to worry about tilling anything under next spring. I mixed some of this with my remaining peas-and-oats, added the rest of the inoculant, and then managed to finish seeding the garden.

Why Not Just Till it Under?

One of Runamuk’s Instagram followers has asked why I’ve done all this work by hand rather than simply taking a rototiller and tilling the plot under? Perhaps you were wondering too?

Certainly that would have been a quicker alternative and I wouldn’t have been so sore afterwards, lol. However, as an agroecologist I’m concerned for the organisms living in the soil and the impact that tilling would have on them. Tilling destroys their homes and populations. I want to encourage their numbers, help them thrive and aid them in their work so they will in turn aid me in my work: building a farm that not only supports it’s farmer, but which also works in tandem with nature, even helping nature.

That being said, I’m not necessarily opposed to tilling; it has it’s place. If I were facing heavily compacted clay soil I would have brought in a tiller, but as it is, the soil here is a nice sandy loam and this spot has been cultivated for years so I didn’t feel the plot really warranted tilling. The soil was workable with the broadfork, and I am strong and capable. I enjoy the work, and I take pride in knowing I’m doing my best to work with the natural forces in play all around me. So I did it by hand and I feel really good about that.

So Satisfying

broadforking at sunset long shadowBy the time I was on my second cup of coffee Wednesday morning, it was drizzling outside and my cover-crop was being watered in. The whole project was so immensely satisfying: clearing the garden with just the chickens, investing in the broadfork, using it to work the soil, and laying down that precious cover-crop seed─the whole experience was really very intrinsically rewarding to me. And that’s why I’m a farmer: because its fulfilling, because I enjoy it, and because I feel called to do this work and live this life. Thanks for following along!

What are your thoughts on cover-cropping? Have you ever tried it? Or, how do you feel about the notion of agroecology??? Leave a comment below to share with the readership so we can all learn together!