Winter looming

amaranth

With the FSA’s monster loan application submitted for review, and the FarmRaiser party behind us, all focus has turned toward preparing for the winter looming ahead of us. The unseasonable warmth we’ve experienced so far this fall can be deceiving, but make no mistake─winter will come to Maine. When it does I intend to be ready.

Over the years I have adopted a series of personal deadlines for winter preparations. By the end of October I like to have my car winterized, housing tightened down, heating organized, livestock in their winter accommodations, and the majority of farm equipment put away. By Thanksgiving I want to have candy boards on the beehives, and any remaining farm or homestead equipment stowed away safe from snow and ice.

The Apiary

preparing bees for winter
Bees do not hibernate through the winter.

The unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing here in the northeast this fall is not great for bees. Bees do not hibernate through the winter. They cluster tightly together around their Queen, shivering their bodies and wings to generate heat as they revolve about her. They are awake and active inside their hives, but are not working nearly so hard as they do in the summer. As a result they consume much less food when it is cold. When the weather remains warm into the fall and winter the bees stay more active, eating up honey stores that would otherwise remain untouched til mid-winter.

In mid-September the fall honey harvest was taken off the hives. The bees continued to bring in nectar and pollen for another 2-3 weeks, finishing uncapped honey that will feed their colonies through the winter. Hives that were light on stores were given additional frames of honey, and fed 2:1 sugar-syrup using a top-feeder on the inner cover.

Mouse-guards and entrance reducers were installed early in September before the field mice began looking for winter dens. For a late-October mite treatment of oxalic acid (derived from the stinging nettle plant) I’ve scheduled to borrow a vaporizer from a beekeeping buddy. Then in November we will make candy-boards, and any white hives in my apiary will be wrapped with tar-paper before my Thanksgiving deadline. The darker painted hives and the unpainted wooden hives I no longer wrap in the winter.

Even with the unseasonable fall, it’s getting to be the time of year that beekeepers dread most. The colder months are hardest on bee colonies, and too cold to allow the beekeeper to work with them. Already we are shutting hives down. I am anxiously reviewing the season─did I do enough? How many of the colonies will survive? What could I have done better? Of course we won’t know til we’re on the other side of winter.

Garden

The garden is in a state of transition. The summer crops are mostly finished in our small homestead garden. We’ve harvested and eaten zucchini and yellow summer squash til it was coming out our ears. We had a harvest of green beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, a number of pie pumpkins, and a respectable crate-full of winter squashes of varying sizes.

amaranth
Paul grew Amaranth this year, which was new to me. The leafy greens reminded me of spinach and chard, and it grows well all summer─no bolting. I quickly fell for Amaranth!

It was interesting to see which crops thrived in the sandy soil, compared to those who only tolerated it and those that did altogether poorly. The carnival squash did exceptionally well in our dry, sandy soil and I got a half dozen of this variety grown to an impressive cantaloupe-size. While the butternut and acorn squashes produced a number of fruits, but all undersized for these varieties. My favorite winter sweet kubocha squash fared the worst, only producing 2 “miniature” squashes, one not bigger than a baseball.

This is where working part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds can sometimes yield unexpected blessings. I had the opportunity earlier this week to accompany a colleague to the Johnny’s research farm. Not once, but twice in 2 days!─I went to harvest produce for our office-bound co-workers. We harvested bushels of paste tomatoes and beautiful bright colored sweet peppers on Monday afternoon. Then on Tuesday afternoon we went to harvest winter squashes. Thanks to Johnny’s I scored an extra bushel of paste tomatoes, and 3 bushels of winter squashes.

Determined to continue to grow food into the fall and winter, I’ve sown 2 raised beds with cold-hardy crops sown using Johnny’s Fall Harvest Planting Calculator. Timing the sowing of crops for fall and winter harvest is particularly crucial, since they need to reach at least 75% maturity before the start of the Persephone Period (the point at which the day-length drops below 10 hours in duration).

In one bed I have beets, kale, bok choi, hakeuri turnips, radishes, and a couple of heads of lettuce. In the other I have lettuce mix, lots of tatsoi, radishes, spinach, and mizuna.

I was caught a little by surprise by our first frost. It was only thanks to a colleague’s warning on facebook that Paul and I were able to scurry out to the garden in the waning daylight to cover the beds I wanted to save. By the light of a headlamp we snatched the remainding tomatoes and peppers off the plants. Predictably the cucurbits, the nightshades and many other tender plants were wiped out first thing.

Since then, I’ve been preparing those 2 fall and winter-harvest beds for the next inevitable frost. Many commercial growers use the metal EMT-conduit and a simple bender to make hoops that span the bed and covered with agribon to create “low-tunnels”. Since I am no longer growing for market, but to feed myself and my family, I decided it wasn’t worth the expense of time and money to buy the EMT and borrow a bender to make a dozen hoops. I opted to use a tried-and-true method and went for 1/2-inch CPVC to make my hoops. The agribon I already have on hand; I just need to cut it to length so that I can quickly get it in place in the event of a frost advisory.

Note: This is a method I’ve used for years as a woman farmer. It’s easy enough that it requires little tool-skill, and durable enough that I’m still using the same equipment 5 years later. Check out “How to Build a Mini Hoop-House” for more details!

The Farm

At this point, the “farm” component of Runamuk is comprised of the laying flock of chickens that free-range the property I am currently leasing. Last fall we dramatically reduced the flock numbers in the face of the Great Farm Move. We went from about 90 birds to 40, and then lost another 9 birds during the winter to a series of hungry mink. I bought 10 layers in the spring, and then we received another 12 from the Magoons at Willow Lane Farm.

Since all of the birds are now 2-years or older and are significantly reduced in their production capacity, I’ve decided to send the majority of them to “Freezer Camp” rather than feed them and attempt to protect all of them from predators during the winter.

Older hens tend to be tougher meat, so I don’t sell them to customers, but cooked as stewing birds they feed my family just fine. We will keep 6 to 10 of the youngest, and the rest Paul and I will process sometime in the next couple of weeks. Used sparingly, this meat should feed us through the next year.

Early next spring I intend to purchase 50 started pullets to replenish the flock to have eggs available at the farmers’ market. We’ve decided to transition to non-GMO feed, using scratch grains available at Maine Grains in Skowhegan; it’s exciting for me to raise my birds on grain grown right here in the state.

Homestead

We’re facing another winter in this unfinished trailer. Even if the FSA will finance the Swinging Bridge Farm, the closing date won’t be scheduled til February or March due to the backlog that government office is facing. That means the Final Chapter of the Great Farm Move likely won’t happen til after mud season next year. I’m determined to make the best of things this winter.

changing of the cars
The “new” Forester on the left, and my retired Outback on the right.

Transportation: Experience has taught me the value of properly preparing my vehicle for the winter. Here in Maine we’ve been known to get snow in early November, and there’s nothing worse than driving in slick conditions in an unprepared vehicle. I like to have any major work to my vehicle taken care of well in advance of October, and good tires on the thing no later than Halloween.

Recently my trusted mechanic, Luke Vigneault (of Luke’s After Hours Auto Repair in Madison), pointed out the holes rusted through the frame of the Subaru Outback I’ve been driving for the last 2 and a half years. He had the old girl up on the lift and pointed a flashlight at the rocker panels, indicating how we could see clear through to the opposite side of his garage. He went on to show how I’d worn out the shocks and struts on every tire (that explains why she bounced all over the road so much lol!). So it was with some sadness that we have replaced the Outback with a Subaru Forester in better condition. All that’s left to do is to take my good snow tires off the Outback and put them on the Forester.

Heating & Housing: I like to have my winter heating squared away and the housing tightened up by the end of October too. Paul has been busy cutting firewood from the surrounding forest, and the woodstove has been cleaned and prepared for use. We bought a pop-up garage to store firewood in to keep it dry, and my 2 boys are collecting sticks and kindling into livestock feed bags to add to the stockpile.

There’s not much to be done for the old trailer we’re currently homesteading in; with plans to eventually move on, we’re reluctant to invest too much money in the old place. We’ll put plastic over the single-pane windows to retain more heat and stop drafts. Aside from that I am grateful for the roof that keeps us dry and the woodstove that will keep us warm this winter.

Preserving the Harvest: The majority of my homestead preparations revolve around food preservation. In such tight quarters I’ve had to get creative with storage─especially food storage. Potatoes, and onions, are stashed in cardboard boxes in the corners of the back bedroom where the kids sleep. This is the furthest space from the woodstove and we were able to keep vegetables this way into the depths of winter last year. The winter squashes are stowed under their dresser on the floor, and I’m pleased to have so many that they are spilling out into the middle of the floor there.

I am exceedingly grateful to have inherited a chest freezer from Jim Murphy, where I’ve found I can store a year’s supply of meat and vegetables. Tomatoes are in the process of becoming sauce, sealed into ziplock bags and put into the freezer. Green beans and most other vegetables have been blanched and stored in the freezer. Raspberries and blackberries we foraged from the surrounding woods are packaged and frozen. I sliced up peaches we scored a deal on through a colleague at Johnny’s who has a connection, froze them on a cookie sheet, then packaged and stored them in the freezer. Apples are next on the list, and once processed the chickens should fill the remaining space in the freezer. It’s a really good feeling to have so much food stored away for the winter.

Conclusion

Likely we won’t know the results of my efforts to secure the Swinging Bridge Farm until sometime around the New Year. Regardless of the outcome, I have a farm and family to take care of and winter looming on the horizon. I cannot sit idly by waiting for the verdict. The whole thing is out of my hands now. I’ve committed myself to the present, to winter preparations and to the upcoming holiday season, which is always good distraction. Soon there will be snow on the ground, and cozied up inside before the crackling woodstove there will be plenty of time to ponder the possibilities that next year might bring.

Thanks for following along with one woman’s journey as a beginning farmer! Stay tuned for more updates coming soon regarding my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm here in central Maine!

Garden Update

With the sowing of green beans on Friday, the garden is finally complete. If I weren’t moving this fall it wouldn’t be “done”, I would continue with succession sowings, planning for fall crops and cold-frames to carry us into the winter with hardy greens. But things being what they are, the green beans are it for this year.

potato patch 2016
Some sexy-looking potato plants!

The garden turned out to be about 120 feet by 30, broken up into 3 sections. The greens, legumes, and root crops in the first third of the garden, tomatoes and peppers in half of the next third, and the “squash neighborhood”─consisting of not just summer and winter squashes, but also cucumbers and some pie-pumpkins, in the other half of that section. And finally a full third of the garden is planted with potatoes. Everything is looking really great!

My commitment to being able to produce the food needed to feed my family was one of the driving forces behind Runamuk, and one of the main reasons I conceded to give up Jim’s farm. It’s hugely important to me to be able to produce my own food for my family and to be able to serve my community as a local farmer. Making a deal with Dirt Capital Partners wouldn’t have left me time for either.

So far this season Paul and I have harvested head and leaf lettuce (decided I don’t want to play with leaf lettuces anymore─pretty but too tedious!), spinach, arugula, kale, snap peas and garlic scapes from the garden. I’ve sold extra head lettuces, garlic scapes and parted with a couple pounds of my snap peas at the Madison Farmers’ Market, but the rest we’ve eaten or stored for winter.

Rhubarb sauce on hot pancakes!
Rhubarb sauce on hot pancakes!

We’ve also done some foraging and harvesting to feed ourselves: fiddleheads grow along the riverbanks, and Paul caught us a couple of bass from the Sandy River, Jim had a well-established patch of asparagus, which we gorged on and even sold or bartered some at the farmers’ market, and the farm supports a beautiful rhubarb patch that fed us too. We ate rhubarb til we were sick of it, sold a little at market, and sold 30 pounds to North Star Orchards.

Note: When I worked at the orchard last fall and winter I helped the Dimmock family package their holiday gift boxes, which were  artfully assembled with a variety of apples, farm-produced jams, and locally produced food products like cheeses, maple syrup , and chocolates. The rhubarb will be made into jams that the Dimmocks sell in their farm-store, or in these gift-boxes. Check it out!

Processing snap-peas for freezing.
Processing snap-peas for freezing.

It’s as important to make time to process the food, as it is to make time to grow it in the first place, but I’ve made a start on it. I’ve put 3 quarts of blanched and frozen snap peas in the freezer (decided to try stringless snap peas next year), and made 3 quarts of scape-vinegar (2 made with apple cider vinegar, and 1 with kombucha vinegar).

The stirrup-hoe knocks down over-grown weeds in a flash!
The stirrup-hoe knocks down over-grown weeds in a flash!

Everything has had at least one dose of fish-fertilizer following transplanting, and the tomatoes have been staked and pruned─they’re looking fabulous; mostly paste tomatoes to be put up for the winter. I love the heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, but with my commitment to producing my own food the need to ensure a harvest has compelled me to take on some hybrid crops. Several varieties of hybrid tomatoes, cucumbers, and squashes bred for improved disease resistance and/or increased production have made it into my garden along with my favorite heirlooms.

Now we’re on to the weed-and-water stage of the season, where maintaining it all becomes crucial. I haven’t done too bad keeping the weeds at bay. Sometimes they get tall in the aisles, but I can whack it all into shape rather quickly with my stirrup hoe. Othertimes it’s a more painstaking and time-consuming process, as when it came to weeding the carrot-bed recently.

Things are growing strong─I’ll post again soon to keep you informed; stay tuned folks!

Saying farewell to North Star Orchards

At North Star Orchards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I learned:

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

judy dimock
Judy Dimock

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working off the farm

It’s a fact that many farmers need to work off the farm to cover their living expenses or to have access to health insurance or other sorts of benefits otherwise not available to them. And while I strive to reach a point where Runamuk is infact a self-sustaining business that pays its farmers’ living expenses, we are not there yet, and I suppose if I were being realistic I would admit that it may never reach that point. That’s a dismal sort of thought for me though, so I still work toward my end-goal of working for Runamuk and Runamuk alone.

And in the meanwhile, to supplement my income and pay for my living expenses I’ve taken to working off the farm. I took a seasonal position in the call center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds back in January, and that worked out well–other than the fact that I was sitting at a desk inside all day. The people I worked with were all fantastic–farmers, gardeners, and homesteading-types, with a creative energy and an atmosphere that I really responded to. I was able to work on other projects while I was there–writing, blogging, organizing for the beekeepers’ group or the farmers’ market–I could do while I was “at-work”, which made my load a little easier to manage.

In the spring I took at job closer to home at the local Campbell’s True Value right in Madison, but while the people I was working with were all really good people, I  found the company itself to be more corporate than I’d realized and my personal values and principals may also have been something of a sticking point for them too. In the end the company and I parted ways after just a few short weeks. I still shop there and chat with my former co-workers, but I am relieved to not be working there.

I know I could get any entry-level job in a convenience store or the local Hannaford, I could take a job working long hours in a kitchen, or go back to waitressing as I did in my early twenties–but those are all soul-crushing atmospheres and I would be more than miserable. It’s just not worth it to me to live miserably; I would rather drive farther, or work fewer hours for a paycheck earned doing something I could at least relate to on some level.

And even though I’ve managed to find work and people that I enjoy–it all pales in comparison to the work that I do on this farm. The checks I receive from the MSBA for doing the BeeLine brings me more satisfaction than a “paycheck” earned off the farm. $45 earned at market may be a much smaller take-home than my paycheck from Johnny’s, but it has a much higher value to me.

With the busy season in the call center at Johnny’s long behind us, and the threat of winter looming ahead, I took a job recently at North Star Orchards in Madison. I’m working around 30 hours a week there packing apples for the Dimmock family. It’s still a bit of a bitter pill to swallow to have to be off the farm, but the work isn’t bad–I’m learning a lot about apples and apple farming–and the people at North Star are all really good people.

But working off the farm doesn’t mean that I farm less, or give up farming. On the contrary–I’m working longer days now because the work still needs to get done–especially if I am ever to achieve my goal of working for Runamuk alone.

I’ve created multiple income streams for Runamuk: selling at the farmers’ market, putting together the BeeLine for the MSBA, this blog, the on-farm workshops, bee-schools, honeybee and wasp removals, online sales…. The farm is beginning to gain some momentum and I’m pleased to say that Runamuk is paying half the rent this month. That in itself if cause for celebration and I think I will pick up some Sammy Adam’s Octoberfest this Friday evening in honor of the accomplishment.

Course–truth be told–I would have “celebrated” a much smaller feat for an excuse to enjoy some fall brew. The tree tops are beginning to change to their fall coloring here and the selection of fall beers in the stores have me thirsty to try them all. Stay tuned folks!