Farm Delivery Program for Locals!

farm delivery program

In a surprising new twist, Runamuk is now offering a weekly Farm Delivery Program for locals! Fresh breads, muffins, cookies, leafy-green pea shoots─and whatever other farm-products I have available─delivered directly to the home of participating local customers. Whaaaaaat!?

farm delivery program
Runamuk now offers fresh-baked breads: Amish White, Honey-Wheat or Oatmeal.

Originally I’d intended this program to begin in the spring of 2020 with the availability of vegetables. However, I’ve recently resumed my old bread-making habit and as I was kneading a batch of dough one day, I had a sudden revelation. Other folks might also be interested in farm-fresh bread made with a list of ingredients they can actually pronounce. Gasp!

The more I thought about it, the more I realized bread is a staple for most households, and something which I am more than capable of producing. What’s more, my kitchen is already licensed for home processing, and I’m insured under my farm-insurance policy. Quickly following on the heels of that thought, was the same Theodore Roosevelt quote I’ve followed for years:

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

On impulse I posted to facebook, offering white, wheat, and oatmeal bread to the Kingfield and Madison communities. The response was tremendous: 29 loaves that first week!

And so, I’ve decided to run with it. Each week I’m offering up whatever I can produce, whatever I happen to have available to local customers through Runamuk’s new “Farm Delivery Program”. I even made up a “fancy” list which gets printed off and included with every delivery so that customers know what options they will have the following week. Check it out!

farm delivery programThis list will change just a little each week, and will vary greatly from one season to the next. Some things will always stay the same─like the breads, for example, but the offerings for cookies and muffins will vary to keep things interesting. Then, when the growing season comes back around, I will add vegetables and honey, etc. to this list as they become seasonally available.

It’s a pretty exciting turn of events for this farmer. Knowing that I’m increasing local food access in this part of rural Maine where I was born and stayed is intrinsically rewarding for me, and hugely motivating.

In rural regions across the country, accessing quality local foods can be a challenge for many folks. While Maine is blessed to have an extensive network of fabulous farmers’ markets, the further inland you travel, the farther locals have to travel to reach those markets. Often it’s not feasible for people to make the trek some 30 minutes or more to the nearest farmers’ market. Sometimes schedules do not line up with market days. Other times the cost of market-goods is out of reach for locals of rural regions where low-income households are more prevalent. By keeping Runamuk’s prices affordable and offering this delivery service, I’m hoping to make eating quality local foods more attainable for a broader spectrum of households.

Local readers: For more details on how the program works and how you can get Runamuk’s farm-fresh products delivered directly to your door, check out the Farm Delivery Program page.

Thank you 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!

Jacked On Farming

Since closing on the Hive House nearly 2 months ago I’ve been jacked on farming. There’s so much to be done, and so many things I want to do! Farming is a drug I just can’t get enough of. Each morning I awaken eager for the day ahead, and for the chores and projects I will accomplish in the name of my farm. I am bound to this one small piece of Earth for the rest of my life, farm steward at 344 School Street in the remote western Maine village of New Portland. Everything I do now is for Runamuk, and for my kids to some day have this amazing legacy to be proud of.

I’m all jacked up on farming; it’s an energy that floods through my veins, a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and elation. I’m eager to get Runamuk established here, to begin shaping the conservation farm I’ve so long envisioned. I’ve held onto that dream all these years, feeding it gingerly as you would a flickering campfire that might be snuffed out by the next gust of wind. I’ve protected and nurtured it, and now─with my #foreverfarm beneath me, that dream is burning stronger than ever inside me, and  it’s ready to burst into a raging conflagration.

There’s a sense of romance about the union too, that stimulates me. She is wooing me, this piece of land; with every caress of the wind, and every waft of pungent earthy soil that’s kicked up by the broadfork. I find myself sometimes just standing there gazing out across the field at Mt.Abram, or taking in the tall pines across from the garden, or imagining bird-families taking up residence in the weathered old birdhouses that stand as sentries all about the property. With every blazing sunset and each booming thunderstorm─this farm is seducing this farmer.

It’s a powerful feeling─to be steward of this special piece of Earth─and every time I think about the journey that brought me here, I am filled with humility and this incredibly profound sense of gratitude. I am just so damned grateful to be here, doing this work, here on this beautiful property─and that feeling fills me up, driving me on. Runamuk will be the conservation farm I promised, if only to give back that which I’ve been given.

Oh yes, I’m all kinds of jacked up: high on farming and high on this farm. Runamuk is settling in, there are chickens and bees on the property, various workspaces are emerging, the garden is in the process of being cultivated, and I’m beginning to see how my plans for a pollinator conservation farm can take shape here. These next few years will be big years for Runamuk; stay tuned folks, cause this is gonna be good!

Letting go of SBF and Introducing “The Hive House”

I can no longer deny the fact that the Swinging Bridge Farm needs more work than I had initially realized. I paid to have a thorough Home Inspection performed, hoping to prove the appraisal wrong, but wound up further validating it instead. Had the sale gone through I would have used up all my chips just to secure purchase of the property, and then would have had no funds left over to make the necessary repairs to the old house. And so it is with great remorse that I have let go of the Swinging Bridge Farm and the dreams I had for her.

sbf the house
The Swinging Bridge Farm

I asked my realtor, Leah Watkins, to set up the inspection and hired Maine Inspection to come to the Swinging Bridge Farm on February 5th. The team of 3 men arrived on time, and got right to work. These men walked me through any deficiencies they saw, never talking down to me, only relaying what they saw and what it might mean for the life of the house. They were really great, and I had their report the following day.

The report showed that the roof on the old house is still leaking in spite of work done last fall, mold abatement would be required, and the foundation would need reinforcement too. Who knows what else might come up once the work was underway. That’s a good $40-50K worth of repairs, and as I said previously─I’d already used up all my chips.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s nothing to be done for it.

To save my loan with the FSA I’ve decided to turn my attention to the only other property in the area that would serve me. It is less acreage than SBF, but the house is in GOOD condition and there should be no question as to her livability.

Let me introduce you to “The Hive House”─so named because she reminds me of a beehive, or a traditional bee-skep.

Still located in New Portland and sitting on 53 acres, with 10 of those being open and level─ideal for growing. There’s an attached barn that can serve as my workshop for building hive equipment, and a garage to house the garden tools. I think she’s a good compromise.

Switching properties like this is going to set my timeline back several months, however. I’m already qualified for the loan, but the house itself will need to undergo all of the same tests that SBF went through: the Environmental Inspection (which cannot be done until the snow is gone), and the Appraisal. Where I was initially looking at Closing on SBF in late February or early March, now I’m likely facing a closing date sometime in May or June and the risk that the FSA’s funds might be gone, forcing me to wait until October when their fiscal year begins again. Hopefully it does not come to that though.

Leah and I are going to tour the Hive House on Wednesday, and then we’ll have to negotiate a Sale Agreement for the property. I’ll post an update as soon as I know more, so stay tuned!

FSA Farm Loan Update: Complete Application!

It’s been 54 days today since I dropped off the bulk of my FSA farm loan application with the Somerset County branch of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Surprisingly enough, things continue to progress in the direction of ownership of the Swinging Bridge Farm for Runamuk.

sbf the house
The Swinging Bridge Farm was constructed in 1880 and sits on 150 acres in New Portland, Maine!

The Story So Far:

At first I was afraid to hope. I was afraid to imagine myself at that picture-book little farm for fear I would once again come up short. I gave considerable thought to what I will do if the FSA does not approve my loan request. After struggling for years to gain ground with bees and farming I contemplated whether the hardships and sacrifices are truly worth it. I thought long and hard about my life’s ambitions, my needs and the needs of my children.

Introducing Nathan at the Penobscot County FSA!

Due to the volume of applications currently under review at the Somerset branch, my file was sent to the Penobscot County office. There it is being handled by Nathan Persinger who is new to Maine and it’s burgeoning small farm movement. Originally Nathan hails from Kansas (if I remember correctly), where he worked primarily with large-scale farmers growing commodity crops. Nathan has been excellent to work with. He’s been polite and respectful, has kept me in the loop, further explaining the intricacies of the FSA’s process as we go. He’s really been an advocate for me and my farm operation.

It wasn’t until Nathan told me that my business plan was the best he’d ever seen that I began to allow myself to believe that this might all work out. He said that he believed in my project and  he was going to do everything he could to help me get my farm. Still it was hard to fathom success after so many failures.

Then Nathan sent along his Farm Assessment for me to review. This is a narrative of sorts, developed by the FSA agent handling the case, which accompanies my loan application to the State Office. I read the part at the end about how he is recommending my plan for approval and my heart just soared!

It’s not mine yet.

fsa farm loan update
Counting the days til she’s mine!

Remember, we’re still at the regional level. The entire application with the encyclopedia of supporting documentation has yet to go to the State Office for intense scrutiny. The whole thing reminds me somewhat of high school sports lol. You compete on different levels to win the State Championship for title and trophy: first the team competes on a local level, then  regionally, and finally─if you’ve practiced long and hard, and if you’re good enough, determined enough─you compete at the State Championship for the win. Thankfully this is not the Superbowl and I don’t need to go on to a National level.

Before my application can go on to the State Office, there is an environmental assessment and an appraisal of the prospective farm property that need to be done. The FSA performs an environmental assessment largely to ensure that the proposed farming operation will not cause a threat to the surrounding environment. Nathan has to go to the Swinging Bridge Farm and perform an inspection so that he can write up a report. The appraisal is done to ensure that the government is not paying more than what the property is actually worth.

Note: Check out this pdf provided by the USDA to read more about the FSA’s Environmental Compliance requirements, and this one to learn about the whys and hows of the FSA’s Real Estate Appraisal.

The Swinging Bridge Farm Gets Registered With the USDA

In order for the Environmental Assessment to be done, the Swinging Bridge Farm first had to be listed with the USDA. This designates the property boundaries, the types of agriculture happening there, and makes the property eligible to receive services from not only the USDA and the FSA, but also the NRCS.

If you’re a beginning farmer and you’re lucky enough to own your own property, or even if you’re managing property for someone else, it’s worth it to go down to your county USDA office to register your farm and learn what programs your land might be able to take advantage of. It’s a very simple process and the folks at the USDA office are super nice. I’ve done it twice before: once for the land I owned with my ex-husband, and then as farm manager for Jim Murphy’s farm in Starks.

3 Cheers for Mrs. Fletcher!

Let me take this moment to recognize Mrs. Fletcher, the 70-something year old woman who inherited the responsibility of caring for the Swinging Bridge Farm when her husband passed away a few years back. She had multiple offers for the property and did not have to accept mine. We are strangers who have never even met; for all intents and purposes, we live in different worlds. She was under no obligation to work with this wayward farmer from backwoods Maine on a sale that could take the better part of a year at worst, and 5 or 6 months at best to close.  But something about my story, my plans for a pollinator conservation farm, or my passion for taking care of the land struck a chord within her.

Whatever her reasons, I am overflowing with gratitude. None of this would be even remotely possible if we did not have that Sale Contract.

Mrs. Fletcher made up her mind that day on September 14th and she has not wavered since. If the FSA requests documentation from her she is quick to provide, and so this elderly lady took herself half an hour from her home in Kennebunk, to the Scarborough branch of the USDA and registered the Swinging Bridge Farm with the government. It looks like the Environmental Assessment will be scheduled for the week following Thanksgiving, which is good because once we have snow on the ground they can’t do the assessment until next spring, according to Nathan.

A Complete Application

I received word 13 days ago of my Complete FSA Farm Loan Application (officially), though I’m still waiting for my Letter of Eligibility. Nathan has really been pushing my case through, and progress is being made, so I am happy to wait patiently. The pieces continue to line up and where there once was no hope at all, there is now the glimmer of promise. I have allowed myself the pleasure of dreaming, and rather than worrying “What if it doesn’t work out?”, I am instead saying “What if it does???”

Once Nathan has my Letter of Eligibility done, the Environmental Assessment and the Appraisal completed, I believe my application can finally go off to the State Office. There my business plan and my financials will be reviewed and funding will either be approved or denied based on the financial feasibility of it all.

In my mind there is a flurry of questions and concerns. Where is the State Office? Who will be working on my case? Will they agree with Nathan regarding the feasibility of my painstakingly crafted farm-plan? Have I put in enough work? Did I do enough? Am I enough? Is it my turn?

We shall see… Stay tuned!

Negotiations

mushrooms on an apple tree

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

swinging bridge farm old farmhouse
The Swinging Bridge Farm!

The Offer(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I await final confirmation. The suspense is excruciating.

What if this falls through?

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

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

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

Is it really suitable for pollinators?

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

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

Compromise

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

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

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

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

My best shot

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

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

Swinging Bridge Farm

619 middle rd

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

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

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

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

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

That was on Friday.

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

This is huge. I mean: HUGE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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