12 Tips for Wannabe-Farmers

rotational grazing sheep and chickens

Recently, I received a request for tips for wannabe-farmers. What advice might I have to offer those who are brand-new to agriculture and are just beginning their farm-journey? It came to me through Instagram, a brand-new farmer messaged to say that she’d recently made up her mind to farm. She told me that I’d inspired her (me!), and did I have any tips to offer a new farmer? If you’re in the same situation─new to farming and not sure where to start or which way to go─then keep reading, my friend, this post is for you!

tips for wannabe farmers
Rotational grazing of sheep and chickens at Runamuk Acres.

If you’ve been following along with the Runamuk blog, you’re likely aware that I’ve been calling out wannabe-farmers. Farming is the ultimate form of social and environmental activism we can offer, and the world needs us to stand and take action. Not only is the average age of farmers on the rise, but thanks to industrial agriculture, there are fewer of them, and fewer new farmers following in their footsteps. What’s more, studies by the Rodale Institute have shown that regenerative organic agricultural practices have the potential to allow us to actually reverse global warming. The world needs farmers. And it needs us now.

#12: Start Now!

When it comes to agriculture, there’s a lot to learn, and it really does take a lifetime. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll achieve your goal. Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote often runs through my head: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There’s something you can be growing─right now─wherever you are. I’m sure of it.

Traditionally farms began as subsistence farms, feeding just the farm-family. It would take a number of years before the farm was established enough to feed it’s community. The USDA sites the average “middle-income” household spends $7,061 on food annually, and the “low-income” households are spending about $4, 070. So even if we’re only growing food for ourselves, we’re still saving ourselves a big chunk of money, and eating better as a result. I’m a firm believer that in order to save the world, we must first save ourselves. If you wannabe a farmer, start growing something today and feed your family first.

#11: Do Your Homework

It is entirely possible to be a farmer without a college degree. I did it, and so can you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study and learn all you can about agriculture, though. There’s so much to learn! Get your hands on as many books as you can and read them all. Take notes if that’s your thing (I still have bins and boxes filled with all of the composition journals filled with my scribbled notes from Runamuk’s early days). Go ahead and watch some YouTube, watch food documentaries, visit your local agricultural fairs and tour the exhibition halls to learn more about agriculture in your area. Take a Master Gardener course if your local cooperative extension offers one. Watch for other interesting workshops or events in your area where you might be able to learn new skills.

This is the time for planning your farm. This is the fun part. Brainstorm what your dream farm might be like. What are you passionate about growing? Are there particular types of livestock you’re interested in working with? What skills do you want to learn along the way? How might you market your products? Where will your farm live? Give your farm a name (oooooo─so exciting!). Don’t worry yet if you do not own land to farm upon─that is not the end of the road─merely an obstacle to be worked around in time.

how to get started farmingDo a SWOT analysis for yourself; I wrote about Conducting a SWOT Analysis of Your Farm and have provided an example with a SWOT Analysis of Runamuk. Naturally, these are farm-analyses, but you should do one for YOU. What are your personal Strengths and Weaknesses, and what do you see as potential Opportunities and Threats to your ambitions?

Remember, there are no wrong or stupid answers in brainstorming. Once you have all of these notes down on paper, it will be easier to see where your real passions and interests, strengths and opportunities lie. You can then make a rough plan for your future farm. I strongly recommend a good 5 year plan. Set goals for yourself and your farm; where would you like to be in 5 years? Don’t be afraid to reach, but also try to be reasonable with yourself─this is going to take a lot of work. Save all of your notes and plans for your records. Refer back to them annually to review your progress, and make adjustments to the plan as necessary.

#10:  Practice Your Social Skills

A great many─many─introverts are called to farming. I know, cause I am one of them. Entire farmers’ markets are made up of introverts, trust me! But I’ve practiced and practiced my social skills, and these other vendors have too; I’ve learned to be friendly and open with the people around me, and it has gotten easier over the years. Sometimes noisy or crowded situations can still be overwhelming. I’m still awkward, I’m sure, perpetually weird and overenthusiastic at times, but I’ve learned that I am not alone in my social awkwardness, and a friendly smile is a great ice breaker.

#9:  Get Involved.

how to be a farmer
I participated in a farmer talent show with friends in service of my local farmers’ market! That’s me in the red sweater!

Volunteering your time and energy is a great way for new farmers to gain experience, build a reputation in the community, and network with other people. Most any non-profit organization or local farm will eagerly accept volunteers. Be committed to your cause, work hard, and be reliable. This helps you build trust with your community, and grows your reputation in a positive way. You’ll get to know the people around you, and they will get to know you and your ambitions of farming. Sometimes these relationships can lead to exciting opportunities for the beginning farmer. The people in your community can also be useful resources that you might be able to turn to when you have a question or need some help. Get involved in your community, and develop and nurture these relationships through volunteer work.

#8:  Treat it Like a Business

Treat your farm like a business, because it is one. I always tell new farmers to file a “Schedule F” with their taxes as soon as they are grossing $500 annually from farm-sales. This is the IRS form that documents farm income to the government, and once you have a record of this income, you are officially considered to be farming on some level. This is what financial institutions are looking for when you apply for loans as a farmer, so this is an important document to have. And if you can show an increase in your net farm-income each year, that proves to the powers-that-be that your business is indeed growing.

You’ll also want to have an up-to-date resume, and a formal business plan (mine was a whopping 33 pages when I started! Before I could submit it to the FSA I had to condense it to 12). Your local business development center can help you with that.

If you don’t know already, learn how to use spreadsheets and actually use them to track your farm’s income and expenses. These annual cash-flow records are invaluable tools with potential investors and financial institutions. Always keep your receipts! Also keep production records: how many seeds sown and the yield they produced, crop rotations, fertilizing and pest treatments, etc.

#7:  Be Prepared to Make Sacrifices.

Imagine the pioneers who went West looking for a new life in a new land…they gave up the security and safety available in the East and traversed over 2,000 miles to reach their destination. Along the way they lost treasured possessions, family members─they sometimes arrived with little more than the clothes on their back after their long and perilous journey. Along your farm-journey, you may also have to give up security and safety, or forsake customary extravagances and conveniences. How far are you willing to go to achieve your goals?

tips for new farmers
To avoid the payment on a pick-up truck, I make-do with my Subaru. The seats fold forward, allowing me to haul a small load, or even livestock, if need be.

To be able to do the work of farming, you will likely need to make sacrifices somewhere along the way. You might decide to give up your newer model vehicle for a second-hand beater with no monthly payments. If you’re not already, you may consider buying yours and your family’s clothing at local thrift stores. Giving up cable or satellite TV services will usually save you in the neighborhood of $100 a month; likewise with expensive cell-phones. Maybe you’ll stop eating out, or give up extracurricular activities. Or, instead of buying that new living room set with your tax return, you could use that money to buy a tiller, or seeds and tools, etc. Runamuk has been funded over the years, in large part with my Earned Income Tax Credit. I’ve also lived in very poor conditions and suffered cold winters in poorly heated dwellings in order to free up money for my farming ambitions.

In the end, it’s all about priorities and how bad you really want it. As a new or beginning farmer, you’ll need those extra funds to invest in your business. You’ll need money to buy tools, seeds, livestock, fencing, permits, insurance─you name it. Unless you have some capital saved already, or are fortunate enough to have access to money, you’ll have to figure out how to make those investments. Be prepared to make sacrifices to make your farm-dream a reality.

#6:  Match the Land to it’s Suited Use.

Whether you’re leasing 1 acre for farming, borrowing space in your great-Aunt’s back-40, or you’re lucky enough to already own a small piece of Earth, you’ll want to match the land to it’s suited use. Do a SWOT analysis on the site.

  • Landscape: Is it all filled with brambles? or an open pasture with fairly good soil?
  • Water: Be it a pond, stream, or spigot, you’ll need access to water for pretty much any kind of farming you want to do.
  • Sun exposure: How much sun does the spot get daily and how does the changing of seasons affect that?
  • Weather conditions: Is the site open to driving winds? Will you experience winter snow and ice? Consider how different weather conditions might affect your farm-operation at that site.
  • Drainage: Is the site relatively dry all year? or does it get wet and mucky in the spring?
  • Existing infrastructure: Are there any existing structures or utilities (like access to water and electricity) that you will be able to make use of?
  • Soil conditions: Is it suitable for growing vegetables? or too rocky, and better instead for grazing livestock upon?
  • Plot size: How much space do you have to work with? Dictates how many carrots or sheep, etc. you can raise there.

All of these things will factor into what you can successfully grow at any given location.

#5:  Think Outside the Box.

tips for starting a farm
I’ve learned to build these alternative hoop-structures for everything from seedling houses to chicken coops. They allow me to do a lot without a big up-front investment. Just one example of this farmers’ creative resourcefulness.

It’s inevitable that you, the new farmer, will eventually meet with some kind of obstacle along your farming-journey. When this happens, do not despair. Instead, take this opportunity to get creative─think outside the box and come up with some kind of alternative work-around to your problem.

This is resiliency at it’s finest, my friends. There are so many ways to farm, so many ways to achieve the same end goal: farm ownership and serving your community as a farmer. Don’t let old-school concepts hold you back. Brainstorm ways around your problem─always remember there are no wrong answers in brainstorming! It’s merely a tool to generate ideas.

If you can’t come up with any ideas, research it to see what other people have done in your situation. Don’t be afraid to ask your peers and your community for input, either. You’ll be surprised by the number of people that want to see you succeed─they want you to be their farmer!

#4:  Watch for Opportunities.

tips for beginning to farm
At Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine, premium bee-forage abounds for miles around. The landowners invited me to site an apiary there because I was involved in my community, serving as president of the Somerset Beekeepers’ at the time.

Sometimes doors will open for you when you least expect it. In my own farm-journey, I’ve found that by always working hard, and by practicing kindness and gratitude, it fosters my relationships with neighbors and community-members. The relationships I’ve built through my volunteer work has led to many interesting opportunities for Runamuk: everything from donations of equipment and livestock, to access to land to farm upon.

That doesn’t mean you should say yes to every opportunity that presents itself─especially in the case of livestock. Only you know what is right for your farm-operation, and sometimes, even though they mean well, people are just trying to unload their own problem-animals. Try to make good business choices when opportunities present themselves.

#3: Practice Patience.

advice for beginning farmers
To gain experience, I found jobs within the local agricultural community, including North Star Orchards in Madison, ME. Here I am in one of their vast coolers!

Unless you have ready-access to farmland, or access to credit and capital to begin your farm with, it’s likely this is going to be a long-journey for you. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to be overcome to achieve your goals.

Accept that there will most certainly be failures. There will be bad days. Hard days. Days when you’re sick or sore─or both─and you’ll begin questioning yourself and why you even started this journey in the first place.

You’ll wonder if you’ll ever reach your destination. Be patient with yourself and with the journey. Remember it’s not about the destination. You’re already farming. You ARE a farmer.

#2:  “Don’t Overwork Yourself” (advice from the farmers’ son)

As I sat at the dinner table with my 12 yo son, BraeTek, I pondered what tips for wannabe-farmers I might have. It was a rainy September evening and we were eating one of BraeTek’s favorites: seafood chowder. I’d made it from scratch, with a variety of canned seafood, and my own potatoes, carrots, and onions, in a rich creamy broth. To go with it we had slathered in butter this artisan bread by Julia, from Crumb Again Bakery in Kingfield, which I’d traded vegetables for at farmers’ market last Friday. It was a wonderful meal to share at the table with my son, catch up on his school day, and just connect over good food.

Admittedly, I take great pride in the fact that my kids have been raised largely on my own homegrown and homemade food. After all, it was the desire to supplement our household food budget, as well as to provide fresh and organic food for my family, that steered me down this path in the first place. My 2 sons have been with me through every phase of my farm-journey, and they’ve seen first hand how hard I’ve worked.

Between the slurping of soup, I thoughtfully asked BraeTek, “If you were going to offer tips for new farmers, what would you tell them?”

At first he gave me the typical teenage-scoff, but I laughed that off and pressed him to give the question some thought. The answer he came back with was actually very good; BraeTek’s tip for wannabe farmers is:

Don’t overwork yourself.

He says, sometimes I complain at the end of the day that I am sore or exhausted from working on the farm all day. And he’s absolutely right, you know…as farmers, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. The farming-journey is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to make sure we’re taking time for ourselves, and saving enough of ourselves for our families too. It’s also important to ensure down time in order to avoid burn-out. What a smart kid!

#1: Don’t EVER Give Up.

runamuk acres conservation farm
I am living proof that dream do come true. Check out my farmhouse! If I can do it, you can do it too!!!

This is my number one tip for the wannabe-farmer. If you really and truly want this─if you have no reservations and you know, deep in your heart that you are called to farming, called to serve your community and your planet as farmer─then don’t you ever, ever give up. You will get there.

The path of each farmer will different from the next. It took very nearly 10 years to achieve my own goal of farm-ownership, but perhaps you will have yours and be underway within 3 months or 3 years. Even if it takes you 13 years! in the end, I promise you─so long as you don’t quit─you will eventually find yourself where you are meant to be, doing what you are meant to be doing. Farming.

Join the Revolution: Be the Change

me on the farm
Loving life on my new farm!

The USDA and the FSA consider a beginning farmer to be one in his or her first 10 years of their agricultural careers (but if you don’t have supporting documentation it doesn’t count!). Yours truly is officially graduating this year, from “beginning farmer” to “farmer”, and while I would not claim to be any kind of expert, I offer up these tips for wannabe-farmers from my own experience. My hope is that I can help other new and beginning farmers to have the courage to start down the path of their own farm-journeys.

The time has come for We the People to stand and take action. We can’t wait for our governments to make changes for us─we’ve waited more than 50 years already for environmental action. No, the time has come for We the People to stand up and be the change we want to see in the world. We have that power in our very own hands─we can be farmers, and we can farm using regenerative practices. We can save our children, affect climate change, and improve society─literally at the ground level. Join the revolution today. Be a farmer.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe 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!

12 tips for wannabe-farmers

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

dharma farm

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

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

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

1. Support Local Economies

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

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

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

2. Cultivate Food Security

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

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

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

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

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

3. Stewardship Opportunities

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

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

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

4. Increased Self-Reliance

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

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

5. Build Community

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

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

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

6. Vibrant Farming Community

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

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

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

7. Land-Rich

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

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

Consider Farming as a Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Down as Manager of the Madison Farmers’ Market

friends at market

After 6 long years, the time has finally come: I am stepping down as manager of the Madison Farmers’ Market. This was a difficult decision for me, but with Runamuk’s new #foreverfarm home, I feel confident that I am making the right move for me. I’m looking forward to devoting all of my time and energy to Runamuk, and to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation center to life.

Why Volunteer?

For the last 10 years I’ve given my time and energy to a number of local organizations, trying to do my part to support my community, striving to be the change I want to see in the world. I truly believe community involvement is important─not just for the community, but also for ourselves. Volunteering your time and energy for a cause helps you grow as a person, you learn new things, meet new people, and are intrinsically rewarded for the service you do. I really think everyone should be involved somehow in something that matters to them.

Volunteer-work is also a good way for someone to establish credibility in their community, build a reputation and network with new people. For me, it was a powerful tool in growing Runamuk; people in this region of Maine have come to associate me with Runamuk, and Runamuk with bees and bee-conservation. I strongly encourage beginning farmers wanting to break into the market (or any person looking to make a name for themselves) to seek out ways to get involved with the community you will be serving─get to know the people and learn what gaps exist that you could fill, or seize unexpected opportunities that might present themselves through associations with the locals.

Serving the Madison Farmers’ Market

For me, it all started with the Master Gardeners’ program at my local cooperative extension. From there I went on to establish the Somerset Beekeepers and served as president of that group for 6 years. I served as a 4H leader for a time, and of course, there’s my service to the Madison Farmers’ Market. I know that many of the opportunities I have had, would not have been presented to me had I not put myself out there, given of my time and energies to these programs and my community.

Of all of those programs and services, the Madison Farmers’ Market is the one that is nearest and dearest my heart. Facilitating local food in my hometown, supporting local agriculture in this region where I grew up, and just getting to know my community on a very personal level─has had a profound impact on my life.

maine regions map
Madison on the Maine map.

For those who are not from the area, Madison is a fairly rural town, located along the banks of the Kennebec River, in what is known as the Kennebec & Moose River Valley Region of Maine. Even with fewer than 5 thousand inhabitants, Madison is a mecca for the many outlying villages that are scattered throughout the Foothills and the closest access to a grocery store, banks and gas stations.

At the Madison Farmers’ Market, not only have we cultivated meaningful friendships between fellow farmers, we’ve also developed some strong relationships with the locals of Madison, and it’s “sister-city”, Anson, just on the other side of the river. We’ve met people from the villages of Starks, Embden, and North Anson. One woman comes from as far north as Salem (an unincorporated Maine township located 10 or so miles north-westerly from Kingfield) to visit the market. These relationships, and getting to know the people of the area where I was born and raised, where I have chosen to stay and raise my own children─these are what I treasure most about being a part of the Madison Farmers’ Market.

I’ve learned so much about farming and growing food just by spending my Saturdays peddling my wares in the parking lot at the Main Street Park in Madison, Maine. Sitting there in all types of weather, with my comrades in arms (just figuratively, lol!), discussing all manner of topics, learning from each other as we offer locally produced foods and goods to the people.

Though I am stepping down as market-manager, Runamuk will continue as a member of the market, and dedicated patrons will still be able to find me at the Madison Farmers’ Market every Saturday selling my wares.

Some Highlights From My Career as Market-Manager

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ISO Volunteers

So who will step up to fill my shoes? What will happen to the Madison Farmers’ Market now that Sam is stepping down?

That I can’t say….

Currently the Madison Farmers’ Market is in search of a volunteer─or better yet: a group of volunteers─who can take on the responsibilities of the market duties. There is the possibility of a stipend for a “market-manager”, though I do not know yet how much that stipend might be. What we’d really like to see is a committee, made up of at least 3 volunteers: a treasurer, secretary/marketing person, and an EBT-point person who will spearhead the Maine Harvest Bucks program for the community (the program that allows the market to offer EBT/SNAP shoppers bonus-dollars for purchase of fruits and vegetables).

Without help the Madison Farmers’ Market will no longer be able to accept credit, debit, or EBT cards at the market, and we will surely have to relinquish the Maine Harvest Bucks program.

Serve Your Community!

If you’re reading this from the Madison-Anson area and are interested in supporting local agriculture─consider giving of yourself to the Madison Farmers’ Market. If you have a passion for increasing local food access, serve your community by serving it’s farmers’ market. And most definitely, if you’re a beginning farmer in the Kennebec & Moose River Valley Region of Maine, think about building your reputation by getting involved the Madison Farmers’ Market.

Even if you’re located elsewhere, I still encourage you to participate somehow in your local community. Many wonderful services and programs exist only because of the people who freely give of their time and of themselves to facilitate them. What’s more, you’ll be enriching your own life at the same time. But (in the words of Levar Burton from Reading Rainbow) “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Get involved today and find out for yourself!

Please share this post to help the Madison Farmers’ Market find new volunteers so that we can keep our special services going for the people of Madison-Anson and the surrounding rural areas. Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer!

How is the Cost of Farmland Affecting Beginning Farmers?

farmland

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

Barriers to farming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising farmland prices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost farmland

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

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

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

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

Fewer new farmers

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

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

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

Addressing farmland access

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agriculture needs community

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

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

5 Reasons To Raise Chickens

Chickens are often the first livestock to be added to a homestead and have been laughingly referred to as the gateway livestock. However the benefits of adding a flock of chickens to your backyard, homestead, or beginning farm, are no laughing matter. Chickens bring some serious good ju-ju with them and open the door to a number of opportunities for the sustainably inclined.

5 Five Reasons To Raise Chickens1. Improved soil condition & fertility

For a homesteader or farmer, one of the greatest benefits (aside from egg-production) of keeping chickens is the remarkable improvement to your soil. Wherever chickens go they’re forever scratching and digging as they hunt for food, pooping as they go. The poop is then worked into the soil via that same scratching and digging. Chickens are experts at mixing manure with mulch; they’re gas-free, noise-free tillers (and the noise they do make you won’t mind!), and they do a great job of cleaning up the garden after the growing season is done.

2. Pest and disease prevention

Chickens are natural foragers: they’re always on the hunt for spiders, ticks, beetles, grubs, worms, grasshoppers, etc. They’ll keep the pest population down for your family and your livestock by grazing on weeds and insects; homesteaders and farmers can take advantage of this by rotating chickens on pasture following other livestock to control fly and parasite problems.

3. Increased self-sufficiency & sustainability

raise chickens for sustainability
You can get started with chickens without too much investment.

With a minimal investment in time and money, chickens allow us to operate a closed-loop system for each and every household, homestead, or farm. Through the recycling of food and yard waste, we can keep more waste out of landfills; one city in Belgium even gave their residents chickens in an effort to save money on waste disposal! Not only can we produce our own eggs─but when the chickens begin to age we can put those birds in the freezer for meat and further reduce, possibly even eliminate our dependence on the industrialized food system.

 

4. Knowing how your food was produced

grow your own chicken for food
I keep my birds for 2 years as layers, then in the fall they go to freezer camp and become food to feed my family.

raise chickens for egg productionWhen you raise or grow your own food you have control over exactly what goes into producing that food. You’ll know what went into those eggs─whether it’s organic or non-GMO feed, whether those birds were kept in cages or raised on pasture─and you won’t feel guilty because you’ll know the quality of life your oven-roasted chicken had. You can raise your flock according your own specific priorities and adhere to your own unique principles in the production of your own food.

5. Income for your budding farm-business

raise chickens for farm income
The sales my farm makes from egg-production pays the feed bill for all of the critters on my farm.

If you’re a beginning farmer, or even just a homesteader looking to earn a little money on the side, adding chickens to your operation is a relatively quick and easy way to generate some income. Chickens require a minimal investment since you can house them in all sorts of creative ways to cut costs on infrastructure, and they require very little of your time each day to keep the birds healthy and happy. Many folks like to start with chicks which are cute and fluffy and cost about $3/bird, but if you’re willing to spend a little more money you could get established layers and an immediate source of income.

 

 

 

Open the gate!

Not everyone can grow their own vegetables or raise their own livestock for eggs or meat, but for those who not only have the space and time, but also the inclination to live and work toward a more sustainable lifestyle─chickens are the ideal place to start. Chickens really are the gateway livestock for the simple reason that they are the perfect first step for the new homesteader or beginning farmer. With their low-cost set up and easy maintenance chickens allow the farmer to learn as they grow, becoming comfortable handling livestock and becoming familiar with the ebb and flow of life in tandem with animals and nature. What’s more, in addition to the farm-fresh eggs are the added benefits of soil-conditioning, a ready source of fertilizer, pest and disease prevention, and when the birds have outlived their usefulness they become food for the farmer. Chickens are a no-brainer for the backyard and homestead, and an important cog in a diversified farming operation. I say open that gate!

Do you raise chickens too? What’s your favorite reason to keep them?

 

Farm vs Lifestyle

jim's barn

I’m not perfect. Nobody is. I have flaws and weaknesses─many flaws and many weaknesses, lol. This post is about 2 of them; I am a dreamer, and I have a deep love for beautiful things.

Sometimes these weaknesses are a huge asset. Other times they’re a giant hindrance.

Since I was young I dreamed of the picturesque farmhouse. It took on different appearances, but typically it was a New England style farmhouse with an open front porch and an attached barn. There was always pastures of lush rolling grasses, a forest of towering trees, and a stream to splash in. It was the sort of farm the fabled grandmother or grandfather would have, where young children go to spend their summers in the country with family.

And in this dream there were animals─the gamut of livestock from chickens to a horse, and in the forest the mighty moose made his occasional appearance. There were chores…weeding the garden and haying the fields, but there was raspberry lemonade and homemade apple pie too. There were hazy summer evenings spent sitting on the porch watching the fireflies flicker, and glorious rainy days with a pot of hearty chicken soup. And in always in the distance there were mountains on the horizon.

Somehow as I grew up I carried that beautiful dream with me. I’ve fantasied about it, researched and studied it, practiced, worked towards it, and it was that dream which gave rise to Runamuk. An impossibly grand dream─not just a farm; an apiary and pollinator conservation center. (Flaw─right there─I can’t just have a farm…nooooo, I’ve dreamt up this grand “conservation center”.)

Insert Jim’s farm. At a time in my life when I was at my lowest─having just left my husband of 17 years, walked away from one piece of property in search of happiness and love, I was not sure I would have another chance at farming. I wasn’t sure I even deserved it. Lol, I’m still not sure I deserve it, but the Universe brought me to Jim’s farm and in many ways it was my childhood dream come to life. And my grand dreams for Runamuk and this pollinator conservation center aligned perfectly with the property.

jim's barnAnd Jim’s farm is beautiful folks. The classic old rambling farmhouse─it has an attached garage instead of a barn, but there is a big red barn across the road. Acres and acres of pastures sweep down into a valley, and the mountains on the horizon offer a scenic sunset almost every night.

Jim’s farm seduced me. From the instant I learned of the vacant farmhouse─since the first time I drove past the property, spying in person the big stolid barn and the sweeping fields─this farm infatuated me.

lupines at sunsetWhen Willow and I walked down through the pastures, reveling in the greening of the grasses in May, I loved on the land, and in June when the lupines bloomed around the pond, all blue, and pink and purple, as frogs chorused in the night and fireflies blinked a staccato pattern across the meadow, Jim’s farm kissed me senseless.

The cacophonous trilling of crickets and the low drone of insects in August caressed me, excited me, embraced me. I was smitten, and I would do whatever it took to be able to remain in that embrace forever.

Or so I thought.

If you recall, I’ve been working with the Maine Farmland Trust to secure a future here on Jim’s farm and they connected me with an organization called Dirt Capital Partners, who helps farmers acquire farmland. Last week the representative I’ve been communicating with revealed to me that their organization works with farms grossing $100,000 annually.

At first I was gung-ho: hell yeah! it’s totally possible to make that kind of money raising bees! But the more I thought about that figure and what I would have to do to achieve it, the more I realized that I was just not willing to do it. My goal is 100 hives, some small-scale local pollination services, raw honey sold regionally, and beeswax products sold both regionally and online. These endeavors would support my desire to establish pollinator gardens and the non-profit conservation center for public education about pollinators and/or sustainable living. My current business plan has me grossing $36,000 conservatively in 5 years, which is still a small income, but is about average for this area, and covers all of my living and business expenses with some left over. I’m happy with that.

In order for me to make $100,000 a year I’d have to grow to several hundred hives and become a migratory beekeeper, be less hands-on with hives and use more treatments. It would mean giving up my time in the garden and all other activities, including managing my local farmers’ market─to devote myself dawn to dusk throughout the entire season─to bees. And while I love bees and enjoy beekeeping, I equally love my garden, have a commitment to producing my own food for self-sustainability and to serving my local community─that I’m just not willing to give up.

After speaking with farming colleagues at Johnny’s and at market, I came to realize that the number Dirt Capital targeted was not very realistic for a small farmer, especially one in Somerset County, which is a very poor region of Maine. One of my colleagues went so far as to say that if farmers were making that kind of money, more people would be doing it, or would grow old doing it. I couldn’t help but wonder how many farms in Somerset make that kind of money, what that kind of operation might look like….?

And I realized too, if I went that route─scaling up to gross $100,000 annually─I’d be working so much I wouldn’t have time to enjoy Jim’s farm anyway, or time to spend with my kids, which is precious enough as it is. So I could either have my dream farm, or I could have the farm lifestyle. But not both.

Not only that, but I’d be taking on a huge amount of debt to keep it all. I’d have to take a massive mortgage, and then borrow money to renovate the old farmhouse and improve the barn, and with all that debt where would I get the money to invest in Runamuk to build it up to make $100,000 a year?

It’s all too much, and though I’ve worked hard, made sacrifices, gone cold and gone without, sweated and toiled, bled and cried for Jim’s farm, it’s not enough and I’m not willing to sacrifice the lifestyle for the farm. These are exactly the challenges new farmers are facing: access to land, and start-up capital for investments. The good farmland and the established farms with existing infrastructure come with these big price tags that beginning farmers all too often just cannot afford.

So I’ve decided to let Jim’s place go. I’m going to finish out my season here, but after I’ve harvested my crops, I’m going to say goodbye to Jim’s farm and I’m going to walk away. It was an incredibly difficult decision; in many ways I feel as though I will be saying goodbye to a cherished lover. It leaves me filled with uncertainty for the future, but I know that this is the right move for me, for my kids, and for Runamuk. I will always be grateful to the Murphy family for allowing me to be here. I’ll treasure the time I spent on Jim’s farm, this place has allowed me to heal, to get back on my feet, to grow and learn, and I don’t regret any of it for a minute.

I hope those readers who began following along because of their connection to Jim will accept my invitation to continue to follow the Runamuk saga as we move forward. Afterall, I may be leaving Jim’s farm, but Runamuk comes with me. We have 17 hives, a new business partner, and exciting new opportunities on the horizon. This is not the end, merely a fork in the road.

Stay tuned folks!

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!

Resources recommended by Johnny’s Seeds farmers

recommended resources for beginning farmers

Beginning farmers face a myriad of challenges and obstacles along their chosen career path. Operating and owning a farm has become much more difficult since the advent of the industrialized agriculture system. New farmers today face a steep learning curve, expensive prices for farmland, and high start-up costs. Despite all that, statistics from the USDA’s Agricultural Census indicate that─especially here in Maine─the numbers of small farms are continuing to grow as more and more young people turn to farming and gardening as a way of life.

For more details about the challenges beginning farmers face, check out this article I put together back in 2014.

There are lots of great resources out there to help new farmers find success; for this article I asked colleagues in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds what resources they’d found most helpful along their journey as gardeners and farmers. Check out their responses below!recommended resources by farmers & gardeners at johnny's seeds


Chance Gonyer ─ Seasonal Call Center representative; farms at Collective Roots Farm in Cornville, Maine.

The Johnny’s website. Their “Growing Center” offers a spectrum of resources, including the Growers’ Library, their Growing Ideas blog, a video library, and a number of super helpful tools and calculators. You can find growing instructions and tips for specific crops, videos demonstrating the use of a variety of tools, methods and crops, and help planning your gardens.


Kamala Hahn ─ Call Center representative; farms at Buttermilk Hill Farm in Belgrade, Maine.

The internet. You can find the answer to just about anything on the web.


Ken Hahn ─ Seasonal Call Center representative; farms at Buttermilk Hill Farm in Belgrade, Maine.

Meeting and talking to other farmers and growers. Skeptically reading great books. Accepting feedback from the earth.


Erin Reardon ─ Contact Center and Scheduling Lead; avid gardener.

Why my Johnny’s catalog of course! I use it all the time for planting depths, spacing, temps, pests, harvesting and storage guidelines.


Bernadette Heyse ─ Call Center Representative; avid gardener

When I first started my gardening business in the 90’s, I was at a lost on how to proceed and gain knowledge.  I always had a vegetable garden starting in my 20’s and I had numerous flower gardens.  My first flower gardening job was working with a dear friend of mine who had a gardening business at the time.  She hired me as an assistant and paid me 5.00 an hour. She was my mentor and within a short period of time she turned me on to someone who needed a flower gardener.  I ended up working for the woman for 12 years – I filled 16 window boxes and numerous flower gardens for this client.  I started buying books on annuals, perennials, bulbs and shrubs, my favorite series of gardening books is “Taylor’s Guide to Gardening.”  I carried the books back and forth as questions would always arise.  I took the Master Gardener class with the focus on flowers and I was on my way pursuing what I love to do.  Of course these days I turn to the web for help!


Jason Albert ─ Call Center Representative; works part-time farming at Moss Flower Farm in Sangerville, Maine.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Checkerberry Farm have been helpful for me, since I work for them I can get stuff for free or dirt-cheap.


Sarah Ingalls ─ Seasonal Call Center Representative; avid gardener.

The MOFGA journey-person program & other people’s farms.


Paul Gallione ─ Johnny’s Information Specialist; farms at Moosehead Trail Farm in Waldo, Maine.

The moral support of others, the Cooperative Extension, and my own determination.


Me! Samantha Burns ─ Seasonal Call Center Representative; farms at Runamuk Acres Farm & Apiary in Starks, Maine.

For me, the internet has always been the most helpful resource in my pursuit of the farming lifestyle; but the connections I’ve formed with other farmers and gardeners is irreplaceable.

Support beginning farmers

As the community of veteran farmers continues to age, supporting beginning farmers and small farms is becoming more important than ever before. Having the tools and resources needed to succeed can make or break a new farmer’s operation, yet despite the obstacles farming is growing in popularity. The people who work at Johnny’s have a spectrum of experiences to draw from; if these resources have proved useful for them, I’m certain they will be useful to you too!

What have you found to be a most invaluable resource along your journey as a farmer, gardener, or beekeeper? Feel free to leave a comment and share with other beginning farmers!

Friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

johnnys selected seeds

I’ve been back to work at Johnny’s Selected Seeds since the start of the new year, and while it’s always a little bittersweet to have to work off the farm, I’m really very happy to be able to work for this company.

jss friends
Tom Eickenberg had been with Johnny’s since 1990-something and was a fixture in the company; here we are at his retirement party sending him off to his own gardens and homesteading ambitions. We miss you Tom!

This is my 2nd year working in their Call Center in Fairfield, Maine. I answer the phone, take seed orders, and answer lots of questions about crop varieties, tools, growing information and much more. It’s largely seasonal employment through the winter months, which allows me to spend more time during the spring and summer working for Runamuk and growing my farm and apiary. I feel really fortunate to have been able to find work in my chosen field while I pursue this farming dream of mine, and even more fortunate that they hired me back after my first year.

Following my divorce last winter I was quite a mess when I began working for Johnny’s. When you get divorced you no longer get to spend unlimited time with your children. Having been a work-from-home-mom for more than a decade I was accustomed to being with and caring for my 2 boys and the farm. Add to that the fact that the land my farm was set up on belonged to my ex-husband’s family and I was suddenly without my kids, my farm, and my critters, thrust into a desk-job in an office 5 days a week, and I had days when I was nothing more than a tearful lump on the couch, unable and unwilling to move. I had days when I was morose, dejected and moody at work─even a few days when I was in tears in my cubicle, doing my damndest to hold it together but not succeeding very well. I didn’t care what I looked like and my attitude sucked. But I found more than just a job a Johnny’s. I found friendship.

Friends at Johnny’s

holiday fun at johnny's
Lots of office shenanigans keep things fun and interesting! As a fellow shenanigator I fit right in!

I found like-minded people at Johnny’s; people like me who have a passion for gardening, for producing their own food by raising chickens or pigs or sheep (or any number of types of critters). People who are interested in living more sustainably upon the Earth, who recycle, use green energy, and practice organic gardening methods.

The employees at Johnny’s are excited about the local food movement, many of them are farmers and gardeners themselves, they’re members of local CSA programs or they’re the farmers growing those local CSA shares.

They’re creative people, enthusiastic and passionate about life, caring and supportive. And I’ve found friendship there. True friends who never fail to provide me with a kind word, a sympathetic ear, or even just a reassuring hug. They lifted me up, supported me and somehow made those bad days more bearable.

A little more about Johnny’s Selected Seeds

johnnys selected seedsThe company was established in 1973 by Rob Johnston, and moved to Maine in 1974 where things really began to take root on the 120-acre farm in Albion, at what is now known as the Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm. In the early days the offices and indeed most of the facilities were set up in the barn, but since then the company has grown to 3 locations: the farm, the seed warehouse, and the call center and corporate offices located in Fairfield (that’s where I work!).

Johnny’s was one of the 9 original signers of the Safe Seed Initiative in 2000, and they still uphold that pledge: that they will not knowingly buy, sell, or trade genetically-engineered seeds or plants. They do not sell any GMO seed. That’s become very important to folks, and rightly so─it’s very important to me too! Like so many others who are learning about our food and the industrial system, we’re learning about these genetically modified crops and we’re concerned. I can’t tell you how many calls I get asking specifically whether or not Johnny’s has any genetically-modified seed.

If you’re not familiar with the GMO controversy, you can take a look at this article I put together back in 2012.

On a totally separate note, but still interesting and important to know about Johnny’s Selected Seeds, is the fact that it’s an employee-owned company. In June of 2012 the company took investment from it’s employees, who bought out Rob Johnston, taking ownership of the company. Johnny’s offers great benefits options as well as profit sharing, and as a result the people who work for the company are truly vested in their work, it’s their livelihood, and their future.

friends-at-johnnys-selected-seeds
I’ve made friends!

Johnny’s hires farmers and gardeners first. They hire a lot of extra help during the height of the season. It’s ideal for people like me who have farms of their own, or who work for a farm, where the spring and summer months are crazy-busy, but once the farm is put to bed for the winter things are quiet. For many farmers it’s these seasonal gigs that allow us to be able to farm at all. But it’s not a selfless act on Johnny’s part to hire these farmers as seasonal employees. Especially in the call center they need knowledgeable people who can help a spectrum of customers─from the beginning gardener to the larger scale commercial grower.

I haven’t worked in all parts of the company, so I can’t speak for the other departments (ie-shipping, seed packing, the farm, etc.), but in the call center there’s a wide spectrum of knowledge available. I feel comfortable there, accepted. My colleagues in the call center are interesting and exciting, and they inspire me to do interesting and exciting things too. In fact, they’ve inspired me to put together this series of articles that I’ve dubbed “The Johnny’s Series”.

The Johnny’s Series

It’s something I’ve been thinking about since last year─I wanted to pick the brains of my colleagues in the call center. It’s a huge opportunity to learn from these farmers and gardeners. These are people with their fingers on the pulse of Maine’s agricultural movement; younger people like me who are up and coming farmers, older folks who have spent their lives living the life we want, and established farmers in varying stages of their careers. I couldn’t pass it up so I pestered friends and colleagues in the office, and I got some of them to agree to help out with this series.

Here’s what I asked:

  1. What is your favorite crop/critter to grow/raise? Why?
  2. What is your favorite or go-to tool? Why?
  3. What resource(s) have you found most helpful along your journey as a farmer/gardener?
  4. What one thing do you wish you’d known when you first started out?
  5. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Maine farmers today?

Cultivating friendships

friends at johnny's
Fine friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds!

I’m in a different place this year─both physically and emotionally. I’ve worked through the emotional turmoil that divorce and starting over brings to your life. Things with Runamuk are looking really good, I’ve got a routine with my kids, and a work schedule with Johnny’s that allows me to still be on the farm 3 days a week. Come May I’ll be at Johnny’s only 2 days a week and primarily on the farm through the summer. Finances are still tight, but I’m gaining and I have some big plans for the 2016 season (more about that later).

Over the course of the last year or so it’s been friendships that have sustained me through some of my darkest days. Friends like those I’ve found at Johnny’s, and those I’ve cultivated through the Somerset Beekeepers and the Madison Farmers’ Market. I’ve felt alone in the past, but now I know I only need reach out and any number of beautiful people will be there for me. And I would do the same for any of them in a heartbeat too, if it meant I could give back even a little of what they have given me. To me it’s become more important than ever before to cultivate my friendships; I’m grateful to have these people in my life and I want them to know it!

And so I’m really excited about “the Johnny’s series”! It’s going to be an interesting read for farmers and gardeners alike. I’ll publish an article a week over the course of the next month to share with you what the employees that make up Johnny’s Selected Seeds had to say in response to my interview questions. Stay tuned folks!

New winter market in Madison

madison winter farmers' market

It was a long struggle this summer searching for an indoor venue for the Madison Farmers’ Market to move to once the weather turned cold. This is my third year as manager of our budding market and I’m learning to allow plenty of time for planning and promoting events, so I started on the project back in June, broaching the subject with the vendors who make up the Madison market. Collectively we were in agreement that extending our market into the winter was something we were keen on, so long as we didn’t have to suffer through the cold outdoors. We may be farmers, but we have limits too!

And I set about my grand search for a location for the prospective winter market. The ideal spot would be somewhere right in the heart of town where locals would easily see our signs and be able to get to us. A number of our patrons are elderly so we wanted to be able to accommodate them; and of course parking was a consideration too.

After a couple of dead-ends and false-starts I was beginning to get discouraged, when we were granted permission to use the cafeteria at the Madison Junior High, which is directly across the street from the park where we set up all summer. Other than the institutional-vibe that the school gives off, it was a good location and the arragement suited the market well.

You may dismiss my comment regarding the “vibe” of the location as inconsequential, but it’s the same with any first impression. The vibe, or the gut-reaction that people get from a new place, business, or house and the people therein plays a significant role in whether or not they return.  And I know the vibe that my market exudes is up-beat and optimistic, open and honest, a testament to our vendor’s dedications to local food and farms─it’s only natural that we should find a location that reflects that kind of vibe.

Well at the last minute one of my false-starts had a change of heart, and we were able to work out an agreement with the Somerset Abbey, which was our first-choice. Hooray!

This past Sunday was the first of our 5 winter markets─running every other Sunday through to Christmas. Our hosts at the Somerset Abbey collaborated with us to incorporate some craft vendors, and they launched an advertising campaign that included a radio ad, a posting in the local Somerset Express paper, as well as online via social networks. Of course we shared the details on our own facebook fanpage and through the fanpages of our prospective farms to spread the word.

On hand the vendors had locally produced chicken, duck, beef, pork, seasonable vegetables (like squashes, potatoes, leeks and kale─even some tomatoes!), garlic, seed garlic and a fabulous garlic dip, baked goods like bread and cookies, scones and muffins, and of course, Runamuk’s own fresh-eggs and beeswax soaps and salves.

madison winter farmers' marketThere was some confusion unfortunately, due to our late change of venue, a few of our regular patrons went to the Jr High looking for us, but they managed to find us in the end and we were happy to see them! It’s that kind of commitment from a growing number of locals that keeps farmers like me and my market-peeps doing what we do.

madison farmers' & artisan's winter marketmadison winter marketThe folks at the Abbey have committed themselves to all-things-local, local beers, local products, local music and artists, and they provided the Madison Farmers’ Market a warm, dry and clean location. Coffee, pie, soup and more were offered up, along with a few cafe tables for patrons to sit at and chat, eat or listen to the live music and the vibe was great. It’s an ideal alliance that I hope will further promote local products and food in Madison and it’s surrounding areas.

If you’re in the area, or will be passing though some Sunday between 11 and 2, the dates of our winter markets are November 8th and 22nd (the Sunday before Thanksgiving), and December 6th and 20th (the Sunday before Christmas). Drop in to see what’s available or what’s going on, and chat with some young Maine farmers over a cup of coffee, we’d be glad to see you!