Shifting Focus

shifting focus at runamuk acres conservation farm

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

shifting focus at runamuk acres conservation farm

Bee-Fever

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

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

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

Excited About Soil

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

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

No Longer Selling Bees

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

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

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

Shifting Focus

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

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

It doesn’t get any more basic than that.

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

rotational grazing sheep and chickens

The Littles

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

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

Giddy Over Soil

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

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

2018 Year-End Review

2018 top 9

It’s time for Runamuk’s 2018 Year-End Review! A quick review of my adventures in farming over the course of 2018 to give us some perspective before we launch into 2019, and all of the shiny new opportunities that await this farmer now that we finally have a permanent place to call home.
2018 best 9Sometimes we wait 10 years for that 1 that will change your life; 2018 was that year for me. Closing on the Hive House is the biggest accomplishment of my life, and while I still have goals I want to achieve, I’m doubtful that anything I do from here on out will ever compare to buying a farm and seeing that lifelong dream come true. Farm ownership has changed my life─it’s changed and it’s made all the difference for my family. Before we move on to 2019 and all the possibilities that it might have in store for us, I’d like to take a moment to review 2018 at Runamuk, and reflect on the lessons I learned as a beekeeper, as a farmer, and as a person.

The Runamuk Apiary

runamuk apiary_may 2018The winter months of 2018 were harsh for many beekeepers across Maine; Runamuk lost 20 out of 21 hives. It’s not the first time I’ve lost a significant portion of my apiary, but it’s always a disappointment and a big set-back to my operation. A visit from the state apiarist, Jennifer Lund, who examined the dead-outs, confirmed my suspicions. I did everything “right”, but the severe cold we experienced for prolonged stretches during January and February, combined with the bizarre the fluctuations in temperatures, had caused the bees to perish.

So I started again. I bought in 10 packages and 5 nucs this spring, and raised almost 40 of my own Queens, which were either installed into nucleus colonies, or replaced Queens in existing hives. I did much better this year with Queen-rearing; I’ve learned that timing is hugely important, as is providing adequate stores and nurse bees to your mating nucs. Right now I’m managing over 30 colonies, but the real question is: how many will survive the winter?

A drought during the main nectar flow this year, meant the bees were unable to make much in the way of surplus honey. The little honey that Runamuk produced was redistributed among the nucleus colonies I raised for 2019─I’m determined to NOT buy in bees this year. Customers were disappointed that I did not have honey for sale, and there was a significant impact to my finances as well.

Those severe weather conditions of the 2018 winter qualified me for the FSA’s ELAP program (Emergency Livestock Assistance Program). It was more paperwork and more waiting on the FSA, but in October I received $1200 from the government to reimburse Runamuk in-part for bees purchased to replace hives lost to the severe winter conditions. It didn’t completely cover the cost of the replacement bees, but it was definitely a help.

Farm & Garden

apiary apprenticeships
The laying flock working the garden.

Our late-season closing date had significant impact on the Runamuk farm and garden operations. Thankfully, I was able to plant potatoes and onions in a transition plot in Norridgewock, because aside from that I was not able to grow vegetables during 2018. By the time we arrived on the scene at the Hive House it was the beginning of July and preparations for moving the chicken flock took priority.

To house the flock of laying hens at our new #foreverfarm, I constructed twin chicken tractors. I rolled them onto the neglected garden plot, and set the birds to work on the weeds and the soil. Investment in electric-net fencing and solar chargers allowed me to rotate the flock around the future garden site, and opened the door for more rotational-grazing in seasons to come.

happy sheep at runamukLater in the fall Runamuk was gifted a pair of Romney sheep, which will work well in tandem with the chickens in my rotational-grazing schemes. These lovely ladies are so sweet and gentle; they’ve added a special dynamic to the Runamuk farm. Next fall I’ll have them bred with the intention of putting some meat in the freezer come 2020.

Following Halloween, I made one last push to get a crop of garlic in the ground at our new location. This involved chopping a swath down through my cover-crop, plugging in the 10-pounds of seed garlic I’d purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and then laying a good 6-inches of straw on top of the cloves. I’m looking forward to seeing those first bright green leaves poking up through the straw this spring.

Personally

2018 was a year of personal growth for me. Half the year I was strung out, tense and distraught as I plodded through the FSA’s extensive loan process, anxiously awaiting Closing Day while my life and my farming operation sat on hold. I distracted myself with friends, music, and by focusing on the things that I could do while I waited, which turned out to be serving the farmers’ market and working with the bees (yay bees!)

appalachian sheep dogsIn May I joined friends on-stage at the Farmer Talent Show to play my banjo in public for the first time ever (I’m a little shy, if you recall, and suffering from a bit of stage fright, so this was a big deal for me). The show was a fundraiser for the Maine Harvest Bucks program at the Madison Farmers’ Market, and turned out to be a wild success within our rural community.

It was late in the season by the time I finally met the Sellers at the FSA office in Skowhegan for Closing on the Hive House. On June 27, 2018, my whole life changed. I’d earned something for myself that was monumental, validating years of blind faith in a dream that more than one person has scoffed at along the way. As a result, I’ve become a little bolder, more confident in myself and my own abilities. I’ve found my “muchness” in the Hive House and in this scrappy parcel of land.

me on the farm
Loving life on my new farm in New Portland, Maine!

At the same time, learning to be alone for the first time in my life was challenging. I struggled with it initially, but then leaned into the discomfort. I allowed myself to grow and evolve, and I’m learning to appreciate the solitude. Being alone is a marvelous opportunity to get to know oneself better. A chance to shower oneself with love and attention. And so I have.

What’s more, I’ve decided to step down as manager of the Madison Farmers’ Market so that I can better devote myself to Runamuk, my kids, and to myself. The Hive House, Runamuk, and all that I want to do here─all that I want to be for my kids─is a lot to manage on my own. I can do it, but I’ve realized that I need to better prioritize how I use my time and energy, and I need to prioritize who and what I give myself to. My kids have to come first, Runamuk is next, then me; everyone else and everything else will just have to get in line.

Biggest Lessons Learned 2018

  1. NOT getting what you want, can sometimes be a blessing.
  2. Prioritize everything.
  3. Solitude = Self-Love and alignment with ones’ own soul.

2018 held some painful plot-twists: initially things had looked good for my purchase of the Swinging Bridge Farm, but when that door abruptly closed on me, I had to think fast if I were going to make farm-ownership a reality for Runamuk. What if the stars moved out of alignment and I missed my once-in-a-lifetime chance?

Now that we are settled at the Hive House, I am grateful to the Universe for saving me from myself lol; as much as I loved SBF and those beautiful, beautiful trees, that house and property needed a lot of work and money put into it, and it would likely have been too much for me to cope with on top of farming. The Hive House is in solid shape and is everything Runamuk needs, it’s everything my kids need, and I am grateful to be steward of this patch of Earth.

Level-Up

runamuk acresBuying the farm was life-changing for me; I leveled-up big time this year, and now I have the chance to grow Runamuk into the sort of conservation farm I’d always imagined. Now I can try the things I’ve always longed to: rotational-grazing, cultivating soil microbial life for better soil health, planting perennials for food, medicine, and nectar sources, and practicing a style of farming that combines modern agriculture and environmental conservation in the best way possible.

I’m eager for spring to come and for the chance to dig in here at our new #foreverfarm home. Like so many other farmers and gardeners, I’m pouring over the seed-catalogs and planning my 2019 season. I’m giddy as a schoolgirl at the thought of all the projects I have lined up. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’ll be building toward something that will be here for generations to come.

This bee-friendly demonstration farm may never change the world on the whole. Yet, if I can show even a small segment of the population that bees and bugs are good─that insects are crucial to the web of life and remind people that so much of what we know today is dependent on these tiny creatures and their relationship with flowering plants, and as such they are deserving our respect, our appreciation, and our protection─then I will have made some difference in the world. My life’s mission will be fulfilled and I will be content enough in that.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box; 2019 is going to be a great season! Follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes glimpses into day-to-day life on this #beefriendlyfarm.

 

Farm and Apiary Apprenticeships Coming 2019

runamuk farm apprenticeships

I’ve decided to offer up the opportunity for farm and apiary apprenticeships beginning with the 2019 season. Eeeeeeeeeeeeek!!!

apiary apprenticeships
Apprenticeships at Runamuk begin with the 2019 growing season!

Having other people on-farm is a big commitment for both Runamuk and my family, and not something to take lightly. Ultimately though, I know I’m going to need the help if I’m to grow my operation to meet the vision I have for this pollinator conservation farm. What’s more, I’m eager for the opportunity to pay it forward, and for the chance to share what I’ve learned. With that in mind, I’ve studied what other farms are doing and designed what I hope will be an apprenticeship program that will benefit aspiring young farmers, as well as Runamuk. It’s a model piloted by Ridgedale Farm in Sweden, and one that I really admire because it supports beginning farmers in the early stages of their farm journey.

This is a profit-sharing model that supports people more and more when they return in subsequent seasons. First-year apprentices are not paid, but 2nd and 3rd-year apprentices will receive a monthly stipend, as well as an end-of-season bonus. Room and board is provided by Runamuk for all apprentices, as well as access to wi-fi and household facilities. After 3 or more seasons at Runamuk, a dedicated individual can learn literally every aspect of the business; including sales, accounting, planning, monitoring and all aspects of every farm enterprise.

farm apprenticeship
Sheep at Runamuk!

Runamuk’s apprenticeship program is geared toward individuals who are already committed to a future in agriculture. I’m offering the chance to work alongside me, to be involved in all aspects of the Runamuk Acres Farm and Apiary, including holding livestock responsibilities, working in the market garden, and assisting in the apiary.

This team will also assist me in cultivating the large-scale pollinator gardens that will form the foundation of this conservation and demonstration farm: a series of 1-acre perennial gardens each geared toward pollinators: bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats and moths. With a 10-acre field serving as a blank canvas, this project will consume our next 5 years or more here at Runamuk. The result will be a winding series of paths leading through a glorious botanical garden, a combination of ornamental and edible perennials.

As you can see there’s a lot to be done here!

There are equal opportunities here for all, regardless of gender, so applicants should all be prepared to do the same work. It’s very physically demanding work, and I have high standards that I’m always striving to meet and which I will expect anyone working for Runamuk to always strive to meet also.

small farm apprenticeships
The laying flock working the garden.

The deadline for application submission is January 31st, 2019. The process involves a Questionnaire/Application, which includes a 2-minute video in response to one question. Top candidates will be asked to come to come for an on-farm visit/workday. Final selection will be made and apprentices will be notified on or before March 31st. For 1st-year apprentices the season begins April 14th and runs to September 15th.

To ensure a good fit on both sides, I’m requesting that interested candidates please read all the information provided very carefully before emailing to request the questionnaire/application. Read about the vision for Runamuk, learn about our Apprenticeship Program (I’m offering space for 2-3 apprentices next season), check out Runamuk’s Apprenticeship Model, and please read our Farm Policies.

After you’ve read all that, if you still feel strongly about applying with Runamuk, please use the form at the bottom of the Apprenticeships page to email me today to request the Runamuk Acres Apprenticeship Questionnaire/Application!

If you know a young, aspiring farmer who might like to apprentice with me at Runamuk, to get in on the ground-floor here and be a part of the story of this farm, by all means please share this opportunity with them!

Now That We’re Buying a Farm: Looking Ahead to 2018

inspect your nucleus colonies

You may be wondering what’s next for Runamuk now that we’re buying a farm. When will we move? What are we going to do with the new property? Will we get goats and put up a high tunnel to start making cheese and growing high value tomato crops hydroponically? What’s the plan, Sam? Read on as we look ahead to 2018.

runamuk apiaries
The Runamuk apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm, early in the spring of 2017.

Firstly, I have to remind everyone that technically this is not a done deal. Yes, I have the FSA’s approval, however it’s all contingent upon the property appraisal, which should be done sometime this month. Remember, the government isn’t going to pay more than what the property is worth, so hopefully the price the Seller and I agreed upon is equal to─or less than─what the Swinging Bridge Farm is worth. If not I’ll have to hope and pray the Seller will re-negotiate with me. I think I’m getting a good deal, so I’m pretty optimistic.

That being said, the plan for Runamuk remains essentially the same as it’s always been: to establish a demonstration farm advocating pollinator conservation and self-sufficiency for a more sustainable lifestyle. To do that I will be employing permacuture principles, working with the land to cultivate a veritable food forest and perennial gardens where my family can thrive in tandem with the natural forces already in play at the Swinging Bridge Farm (SBF). With rambling gardens surrounding the farmhouse and trails throughout the forested hillside, I will create a destination and learning center.

To that end, I’ve created A NEW 5 YEAR PLAN! Yaaaaaaay!

I love me a good 5 year plan lol. I created a 5 year plan for the purchase of a farm for my family and for Runamuk. While it actually wound up taking me 8 years to achieve that goal, in the end I did manage to land the FSA’s approval on my loan request for purchase of SBF. Now it’s time for the next leg of my farming journey, in which I can actually employ the methods I’ve so long studied. I can finally get down to the business of farming for bees.

When do we move?

We won’t know our move-in date for sure until after we officially close on the sale, and that might take months. The FSA waits for their appraisal of the property to come back, as well as the results of inspections, before closing. Sometimes it takes months to get all of the documentation in order. Nathan Persinger (the FSA agent I’ve been working with) was careful to warn me that if the money runs out while we’re waiting on the paperwork, I’d have to wait until the FSA’s funds are replenished in their next fiscal year, which doesn’t begin until October.

But that’s worst case scenario. Things have actually been moving along rather rapidly. The appraisal could have taken up to 3 months to get back, but the job has already been awarded and the contractor slated mid-January for his report to come in.

There’s a small woodstove already in place at SBF.

It looks like I’ll be able to get around most of the inspections the FSA had requested because as no one is living at SBF and the house was winterized this fall. We came up with a list of contractors who have worked on the utilities there in the last few years and Nathan has gotten statements from them regarding the condition of the plumbing, electric and heating systems. So the FSA will waive those inspections, and because of sub-zero temperatures here in Maine I couldn’t get into the well to get a water sample, so they’re waiving the water test too.

That just leaves the chimney inspection, which is hugely important. I want to be able to use the woodstove there and I certainly don’t want to risk burning down my new home, so I’ve been trying to get in touch with the local fire department. I’m still working to connect with someone on this.

The way things are moving along, I suspect that we might close as soon as February, but I don’t dare to believe it just yet. It all still seems a little surreal: am I really buying a farm? Will this beautiful fairy tale really come true? With all 150 acres and so many magnificent trees to befriend? Could it really be?

I’ve set a tentative date of mid to late April for the #GreatFarmMove #FinalChapter. It’ll be mud-season here in Maine; the Middle Road is a long and winding dirt road. Ironically it’s somehow fitting lol. I’m hoping to rope a few friends into helping; you know I’d do the same for them.

Here’s a basic overview of my next 5 years
at the Swinging Bridge Farm:

2018; Year 1

Hearth & Home:This first year is largely about establishing Runamuk’s Zone 0─my homestead. This move was not for Runamuk alone; this was necessary for my family. Living in such tight quarters at Paul’s I realized how important family space is. What’s more, with a child on the Spectrum having personal spaces is important to the well-being of the household. At the Swinging Bridge Farm each of my boys can have their own room; a space of their own. There’s space for a dinning table, a family room, and a beautiful yard right outside the backdoor where we can put a picnic table.

Observe: I’m pretty adamant about taking time to get to know my new property before jumping into too much without really understanding how the natural processes work there. I’ve moved around enough to know that every piece of land is unique and rain, sun, wind, and snow all affect the landscape differently.

hoop house
The hoop-coop I built at Paul’s, which later became just a hoop-house.

Chicken Housing: The chickens will be housed temporarily in a hoop-house on the spot that will become my homestead garden. Until I get their coop built they can eat the weeds, fertilize and cultivate the soil there. By August I plan to have the chickens moved and that plot will be cover cropped so that next year I can plant my first vegetables there.

Garden Transition: Paul and I have hashed out an agreement that allows me continued access to his garden space at 26 Goodine’s Way. I will grow my family’s food in Norridgewock this year, focusing on crops that are less needy─like potatoes, beans, carrots, and garlic─along with a crop of onions for market.

In year 1 the garden at SBF will consist of just a handful of container-grown vegetables: cherry tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash, and some greens too, while I take this first season to prepare the new garden site.

A Few Projects: I do have short list of projects I want to get to in Year 1. Installing a water cachement system is important for any vegetable production. I plan to inoculate a series of logs with mushroom spawn, mark maples for homestead syrup production in 2019, and I want to reclaim the flower bed in front of the house.

New Apiary Site: I won’t actually be moving all of my hives to the new farm. My best apiary is the one located at Hyl-Tun Farm on Rt 43 in Starks, the home of Ernie and Gwen Hilton, who are devoted supporters of Runamuk. There the rolling hay pastures spread out for miles; such high quality bee-forage is too valuable to give up. This site produces the lion’s share of my honey crop, and Gwen has crafted a haying schedule that protects both my bees, and the local bobolink population. Besides that, beehives are heavy─and filled with bees! They’re not easy to move, so I’m just going to leave that apiary exactly as it is.

I plan to install an ALL NEW apiary at SBF! Yay! more bees!!! There I’ll raise my Queens and build nucs to overwinter. That’s is how I intend to expand my operation to sell Maine-raised bees and mated-Queens, make more honey, and reach more people with my bee-friendly message. It’s a huge step for Runamuk and I’m really excited about it.

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

2019; Year 2

Zone Mapping: During the 2018-2019 winter I will work out my permaculture maps, designing my zones and sketching out rough layout for the farm and conservation center. The intention is to establish a food forest with an array of fruit and nut trees, as well as a series of 1-acre perennial gardens geared toward pollinators and wildlife. Because SBF is situated on a high hillside amid the foothills of Maine’s western mountains, laying the farm out on contour is going to be crucial for utilizing the water run off, and for preventing soil erosion.

Open 10 Acres: To create the conservation farm I have envisioned will require me to open up about 10 acres around the farmhouse, taking down a selection of trees (meaning-not clearcut). I don’t take that lightly; the trees are a huge part of the reason I fell in love with the property in the first place! What’s more, because my mortgage will be held by the government I have to apply to harvest the timber off my property. The harvesting will have to take place during the winter, so as not to damage the landscape, and you can bet I will be very picky about who does the job and which trees will go.

sbf_apple trees
Apple trees in need of pruning at SBF.

Pruning Apple Trees: There are about a dozen existing apple trees at SBF, remnants of an old orchard standing in neat rows on the hillside behind the farmhouse. Many of these trees still bear apples, but need love─and pruning─to reinvigorate them. In year 1 I’ll remove the dead wood from the canopies of the apple trees. Then in  late winter and early spring of Year 2: 2019 we’ll start reclaiming the gnarly old apple trees by implementing a 3-year pruning regimen.

Gardens! There will be 6 different pollinator gardens in all; in Year 2 garden number 1 is scheduled for cultivation, as well as installation of fruit and nut trees to establish a “food forest”.

The hoop-house will be used for starting all of my own bee-friendly plants: largely perennials, but also some annuals. I plan to use a diverse array of native flowering perennials to cultivate the various pollinator gardens that will become the basis for my pollinator conservation farm. To add to my farm’s income I’ll sell some of my seedlings, but I expect most of them will find homes at Runamuk.

We’ll grow all of our crops in the homestead garden at SBF this year, while smothering a new plot nearby to increase vegetable production. I’d love nothing more than to never have to buy vegetables at the grocery store ever again.

Trail Mapping: The previous owner of the Swinging Bridge Farm maintained a series of Jeep trails throughout the woods there. I plan to mark and map them. Over the upcoming years I’ll create additional trails, including one that runs through the woods to connect with the Wire Bridge Road so that my family, friends and guests can walk to the historical site directly from SBF.

2020; Year 3

Expand Food Forest: I expect these first few years to be a flurry of planting, and then it will slow down some. Knowing me though, I’ll forever face each spring with some new additions to the perennial gardens and food forest.

Gardens: Establishing pollinator gardens 2 and 3 this year. Annual improvement and/or maintenance to established gardens.

conservation driving runamuk
“Bee Hotel” Just one example of a native bee nesting site. Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Birdhouses & Bee Hotel: With workspace in the barn for assembling hive equipment, I’d like to start putting together a variety of birdhouses to install throughout my 150 acres to further promote wildlife. I’ve long admired the “bee hotel” too, and in year 3 at SBF I’m shooting to finally construct one for Runamuk.

High Tunnel? There may be opportunity to expand my offering of pollinator plants and bee-friendly seedlings. If so, I’d consider setting up a high tunnel at the Swinging Bridge Farm for propagation. Having a space where I can protect seedlings or crops from the elements opens the door to other opportunities too; I could grow more vegetables earlier and later in the season, or I could grow microgreens. It really depends on my income needs, demand, and my internal zeal for the project, so I’m just leaving this on the table for now.

Years 4 & 5

Continue to Expand Food Forest: I’d like to have the majority of the food forest installed by this point, but there may be just a few more additions. Probably mostly pruning, mulching and maintaining plants that are still establishing themselves.

Orchard: Continue with 3 year pruning regimen to improve apple tree health and increase fruit production.

Gardens: Pollinator gardens 4, 5, and 6 are slated to be brought to life in years 4 and 5. I’m hoping to have a “crew” on the farm during the summers─consisting of my own 2 boys, as well as an apprentice and maybe the occasional WOOFER. With extra hands and a careful plan, I hope to get a base start on the gardens which can then can be added to, improved and cultivated in the years to come.

More birdhouses, educational plaques: I aspire to spend time during every winter building a birdhouse or two, to attract new creatures or grow an existing population. I’m hoping my boys might take an interest in woodworking too, but even if they don’t I’ll add to my collection of birdhouses, bat houses, and butterfly houses every year. The plaques will be sited throughout the property identifying the different gardens and habitats, providing information to educate guests. I’m leaning towards having these professionally done.

Education Center: Sharing what I’ve learned about nature, bees and pollinators, and living a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle is important to me. Teaching other people to be more bee-friendly has long been a driving force within Runamuk, and with a forever-farm home of our own we can finally begin to get serious about it. I picture a cordwood structure where I can host groups, families, or children on a class trip for workshops or special events. This structure may or may not be hexagonal like a honeycomb lol; I haven’t decided yet.

inspect your nucleus coloniesIn Pencil

There you have it folks. The 5 year plan for Runamuk at the Swinging Bridge Farm. The first 2-3 years are fairly clear, beyond that it’s harder to predict what will be important. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns that all have an impact on our day to day existence. It’s impossible to know what lies ahead. That’s why I like to write my 5 year plans in pencil; so I can make changes when necessary. I’ve learned that the ability to remain flexible─to pivot when circumstances dictate─is an advantageous skill crucial to success.

Through it all I will continue to keep bees, expanding my apiary (more bees! more bees!), producing my own Queens and raising overwintered nucleus colonies for myself and for sale to local beekeepers. I will keep making beeswax soaps and herbal salves, and we will still have chickens for egg production─we’ll just have more chickens lol. The income the farm makes from those operations will be supplemented by some vegetable and seedling sales, and through sponsorship of this blog. None of that will change really, only intensify.

As of right now, the plan is to continue working seasonally and part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds to help cover my personal living expenses, which Runamuk does not pay for. I’m expecting to be trekking back and forth to the office for the next 2-3 years until I can grow my income from farming and writing to the point where I no longer need the off-farm job.

follow runamuk
Be sure to follow Runamuk by email, on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn─or find us on Instagram!

No where have I included my intention to publish my first book. I’m hoping that with the security and space SBF offers, I’ll finally be able to begin working on the first of what I hope will be many books: both fictional and non-fiction. That would be something new…. But as an untried author I can’t justify including a book in the official plan, and I definitely can’t depend on it as a source of income. This project is on the list, it’s just not penciled in.

We’re on the cusp of a new adventure, something really epic─worthy almost of a Tolkien-style saga. It’s all so exhilarating, but the journey can’t officially get under way until we Close on the sale of the Swinging Bridge Farm. I’m focused right now on just getting through January and this bitter cold, one day at a time. Soon this new leg of my journey as a farmer will begin; I know it won’t be easy, but I’m absolutely positive it will all be worth it.

Check back soon for the latest from Runamuk! Better yet─subscribe to this blog by email to receive the latest posts directly in your inbox!

You may be wondering what’s next for Runamuk now that we’re buying a farm. When will we move? What are we going to do with the new property? Will we get goats and put up a high tunnel to start making cheese and growing high value tomato crops hydroponically? What’s the plan, Sam? Read on as we look ahead to 2018.

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!

Hesitation over the Swinging Bridge Farm

sbf the house

After 12 days of agonizing back and forth negotiations with the Seller of the Swinging Bridge Farm, I learned last night that they are hesitant to make a commitment with me at this time.

swing bridge farm house
The Swinging Bridge Farm!

When I received the news last night I was at Johnny’s after hours with a few devout supporters who joined me in painting bee-themed magnets that will go out to folks who contribute to the Runamuk FarmRaiser. I’m so glad I was surrounded by friends!

The word was that the Seller is “hesitant to make a commitment today”. Apparently they have multiple offers for the house and the Seller has concerns regarding my financing. My realtor, Leah Watkins, has explained the FSA process several times at length─the fact that the FSA does not do a “pre-qualification”─but they are still requesting to see a Pre-Qualification from me, or information on any grants I’ve applied for.

And the Seller wants to wait and see what the house does on the market; presumably to see if they can get a better offer.

Obviously I can’t get a pre-qualification, and though I’ve looked into grants in the past, I learned quickly that the majority of grants are targeted toward non-profit organizations. Where I am trying to earn my living as a farmer, Runamuk does not qualify for grants.

Leah spoke with the Seller’s realtor, who says the deal is not dead, but the Seller is an aging woman who is being advised by family members not to act too quickly. Perhaps they will reconsider and decide my offer is the best one afterall.

I’m less concerned about myself as a farmer in search of land, than I am concerned for the fate of that piece of local history and the precious ecosystem that exists on that parcel. It would be terrible to see someone come in and devastate such a rich habitat. To me, selling farmland is comparable to re-homing a beloved pet: you want to make sure they get the best home possible.

On paper, Leah says, my offer is expired, so I am free to make an attempt for another property. Unfortunately there’s still nothing else in the area that meets my needs, so I will wait and bide my time. My original plan had been to go to the FSA in March of 2018 to apply, which still leaves 5 months to see what else might come onto the market, and to try again to convince a landowner to enter into a Sale Agreement that I can take with me when I go.

I can’t deny my disappointment.

I see great opportunity for Runamuk at the Swinging Bridge Farm, and I came up a lot on the price in an attempt to secure it. To finally find a Seller who has the financial capacity to even consider the long FSA financing process, only to have them turn down my offer─an offer I had poured everything I have and everything I am into─is disheartening.

Here I am with this plan for a magnificent pollinator conservation farm that will preserve some lucky piece of Maine’s beautiful landscape, some piece of local agricultural history, with the potential to bring tourists from all over the northeast to this economically deprived region of the state─and I can’t even get the Sale Agreement so that I can even begin the process for financing.

From an environmentalist’s standpoint, you’d think landowners who care about their property would be lining up outside my door to persuade me to become steward of their land. From a business perspective, you’d imagine town officials from surrounding areas would be vying for my attention, trying to attract this growing enterprise to their town in hopes of bringing more traffic and income to their community. And yet all I hear are crickets lol.

Yes, it’s disheartening. Yes, it’s frustrating. This is the road beginning farmers like me have to walk in order to succeed. I am not alone; and I will not give up. Thank you for following along!

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!

FarmRaiser launch!

Today the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme campaign launches to raise funds for the down-payment on the property that will become the home of Runamuk and the pollinator conservation farm that I have long envisioned. Eeeeeeeeek!

The Man Woman in the Arena

I’m taking a deep breath and putting myself once more in the ring to fight for this dream. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to be in such a position, at the mercy of so many factors beyond my control, and yet I must give it all I’ve got. Against all odds I was called to beekeeping and pollinator conservation, and against all odds I have grown my farming business even as a landless farmer. I have chosen to commit myself to the same economically depressed region of Maine where I was born and raised, and have bootstrapped my way to this arena. I just need a little help to get there.

Here is the link to the GoFundMe page for the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign: https://www.gofundme.com/runamukfarmraiser

It’s been a long, hard scrabble, but I’ve built my business slowly and carefully to the point where Runamuk is now generating enough income to warrant investment in real estate. We need a property where we can dig in, plant perennials and begin to cultivate this pollinator haven, putting into action all of the techniques I have learned for bee-friendly farming and leading the way for other farmers to take up a bee-friendly approach to farming too. I

This conservation and demonstration farm will allow Runamuk to host a wide spectrum of workshops, tours with the public, school field trips and family picnics. With winding paths through the gardens it will be a place of revelry for the beauty and wonder of nature. Our approach to farming will inspire others to start their own journey toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

After searching for years, I can’t help but wonder if it is fate at work, or mere serendipity that the Swinging Bridge Farm became available just as the Runamuk FarmRaiser was about to go live.

Later this morning Paul and I will be going to see the old farmhouse in New Portland. I can hardly believe that the sellers have already agreed to my drawn-out timeline for finalizing the sale of the property. Because I am a farmer and am unable to receive financing with a regular bank, I’m working with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. As you can imagine, any government program comes with a lot of hoops to jump through, hurdles to overcome, and it’s a slow process. I know most people don’t have the luxury of waiting so long for a sale to go through.

I’m a bundle of nerves and fairly quivering with excitement as I wait for the time to come to meet what could possibly be my forever-farm. Could it be? Is it she? The one I am destined to love for the rest of my life? The land that I will give myself to, to sweat and bleed over, to love and cry for─til death do us part?

How you can help

  1. FOLLOW: Follow this blog by email. Follow us on facebook, instagram, twitter, linked, or pinterest to follow our journey and learn more about how you can BEE more friendly.
  2. SHARE: Share the blog with friends and family. Share the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme link with your networks to help spread the word about my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm. It’s a small thing, but it really makes a big difference and it would mean the world to me. And it’s a FREE way to support Runamuk.
  3. PARTY! If you’re in the state of Maine, and especially if you’re local─come to my FarmRaiser Party on Sunday October 1st! Good food, good beer, good music, and good company. What more could you want? All proceeds go to the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign.
  4. DONATE: If you can afford to and are inspired to help bees, consider donating to our gofundme campaign. I’ve come up with some great bee-friendly perks to show my appreciation, including bee-themed refrigerator magnets that friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds are helping me to paint, bumper stickers, honey, reserved spots in future workshops, and more! [paypal-donation]

Runamuk is already a force within the community here in central Maine. But I know I can do more; I’m ready to take this next step and grow my business into this powerhouse of a conservation center. Please join me on this journey; become my brothers and sisters in arms, and take up the fight. Together we can save bees and save the world.

Check out the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme page and please consider sharing our story with friends and family!

Save bees! Help Runamuk go home!

Sometimes I joke that my status as a landless farmer and the on-going search for Runamuk’s forever-farm has given new meaning to the name “Runamuk”. Originally I named the farm after the chaos homeschooling 2 rowdy boys inspired in my life, but we’ve had 6 moves in Runamuk’s lifetime (7 years). Lack of capital and land-access are the number one challenges beginning farmers are facing, so I know at least that I’m in good company. With so many moves it’s been hard to get ahead in the business; each move is a financial set-back and only serves to delay the good work that I could be doing.

A farm is built up through the farmers’ efforts at building soil, crops and livestock year after year; that can’t happen unless there is a long-term situation for the farmer. I feel almost as though I am in suspended animation. There are plants I want to grow, agricultural and conservation methods I want to try, animals I’d like to raise, and the kind of production that can only come through years and years of dedication to the same piece of Earth.

But Runamuk is meant to be so much more than just a farm. Runamuk is a conservation and demonstration farm.

runamuk farmraiser infographic

bee-friendly farmingWe’re practicing regenerative agriculture and bee-friendly farming to lead by example, teaching others how they too can live in coexistence with pollinators and the natural world around us. Agritourism is meant to be part of my business with on-farm workshops, bee-schools and tours. In our current situation the apiary is located on someone else’s farm, while we live and homestead in a situation that is not conducive to having the public stop by.

Farming isn’t always picture-perfect, but to sell a product or idea, to influence folks to your way of thinking (as in to persuade the public that bee-friendly living and farming is a good idea)─you have to meet folks halfway. The reality is that people have preconceived perceptions of what a farm looks like and in order to change someone’s way of thinking you have to meet them half-way in order to gain any traction with them.

That’s why I’m still searching for a forever-farm home that fulfills the vision I have for Runamuk. It’s also the motivation behind my 2-part campaign I’ve dubbed rhe: “Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm”

The Vision for Runamuk (the short version)

Set in the heart of the western Maine mountains, this 100-acre conservation farm will be ideal for raising superior honeybee stock adapted to Maine’s challenging conditions. Perennial food forests and gardens will be laid out to feed both the farmer and the bees, along with wildflower meadows and pastures which are rotationally grazed or mowed to conserve wildlife and local populations of beneficial insects like pollinators, while still allowing income and management of the fields.

Well-defined walking paths will lead the way throughout the conservation farm, with plaques identifying the habitat and the wildlife supported by it. Nesting boxes for birds, bats, bees and butterflies will be scattered about the conservation farm attracting wildlife and educating the public─with a grand “bee hotel” providing habitat for a spectrum of native bees.

Visitors will find benches about the farm for sitting, allowing them to absorbing nature and take in the extensive demonstration gardens. A picnic area and a fire pit for community gatherings and celebrations will attract school field trips or families on vacation. The Runamuk Conservation Farm will be a welcoming stop for tourists passing through the area, and a destination for anyone looking to learn about beekeeping, pollinator conservation, bee-friendly farming, regenerative agriculture or sustainable living.

Read the Vision for the Runamuk Conservation Farm in it’s entirety.

Going for it

This is the vision that I have for Runamuk and whether it is I that cannot let go the dream, or the dream that refuses to let go of me, I cannot say. I only know that it burns inside me and I have neither the strength nor the will to deny it any longer. I’m going for it.

The Campaign

In 2 parts, friends and followers can help Runamuk find it’s forever-farm home and raise funds for the down payment on that property.

Part A: Utilizing social media to spread the word about what we are looking for to connect with a land-owner who might potentially be willing to work with us to preserve their property for future generations. I’ve listed below the kind of things I’m looking for in Runamuk’s forever-farm and created a sharable graphic to make it easy to circulate the information. Begin: NOW!

Part B: Crowdfunding for the down-payment on that forever-farm property. I’m shooting for  $20K─that would give us a 20% down-payment on a property with a $100K price tag, but any amount raised will help in the purchase. If we should raise more than that it would mean a lower mortgage or a better property (maybe even one with housing?), and if we don’t raise that much that’s ok too─at least we’ll have a chunk of change to offer.

I’m brainstorming a list of perks to offer in exchange for a pledge of support for my cause. Some of the ideas I have include: pollinator-themed refrigerator magnets, a Soap CSA─3 bars a month for 12 months, gift certificates for pollinator plants, Beekeeping 101 with me (either at my apiary or via Skype). Those are just a few ideas; I’m open to suggestions, and if you’re interested in being a part of the team to help organize this campaign and finally take Runamuk home to begin the work of promoting pollinators in earnest, please let me know.

“Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm” Campaign Launches: September 1st, 2017.

What we’re looking for

help runamuk find forever farm

Acreage:

You can grow a surprising amount of food on a smaller parcel of land and increasingly farmers are doing just that. I’m helping Paul to establish a perennial food-forest garden right here so that his Norridgewock property will support itself. For the scope of the Runamuk project however, we’re looking for at least a hundred acres to farm on.

Price: I’d prefer to keep my debt as low as possible, so I’m shooting for a price tag of about $100K. The bigger the number the more queasy I get. After scouring the market for the last 5 years I know that the beautiful old farmhouses with acreage still in-tact can be anywhere from $150-$360 or even more. So unless a golden opportunity comes along, we’ll probably be looking for land without existing infrastructure.

A View: Such an view on the horizon lends much beauty to the setting, and Runamuk will surely inspire it’s guests to make big changes in their lives.

Secluded: My strategy is to develop a hygienic honeybee strain that is adapted to the mountainous region of western Maine, tapping into potential feral colonies that might still reside in the reserved public conservation lands in that part of the state. A location apart from the state’s other commercial apiaries offers more control over genetics.

Phillips-Area: After spending so much time pouring over realty listings, I’ve only recently come to realize that the area around Phillips, Maine seems to best meet both my vision and my needs. It’s not too terribly far from Madison-Anson to Phillips, and Route 4 is a main avenue for tourists traveling to our Rangeley Lakes region. Set right in the heart of the mountainous Maine wilderness with some great farmlands along the Sandy River, this area really speaks to me.

Those are my must-haves, but I have some other things that I’m looking for when exploring property. Here they are in order of importance:

Pasture: This is actually very high on my list and I warred with myself on whether it should have been listed with the must-haves. 5 acres of open pasture would allow for quick set up of the Runamuk farm, offering open ground for gardening, bee-forage and a source for the medicinal herbs and flowers I use to make our value-added beeswax products. I would only be willing to sacrifice the pasture for “the Right” property.

Gnarly trees: I have a thing for old gnarly trees and would love to have some on my property. And I have a thing for mature-growth forests─forests that have not been cut for a long, long time. I am the proverbial tree-hugger.

Water-source: Having some kind of water source available would be a big boon to the operation, be it a stream, farm pond, or old dug farm-well.

History: There’s so much to be learned from those who came before us, and a sense of richness that comes from that kind of depth in a property. I would love to have one of the old 1800’s farmhouses with the fields all bisected by rockwalls and gnarly old trees lining the drive. Or even just a chunk of land that had once been a working farm, but has since been reclaimed by the Maine wilderness─with rock walls dividing the forest, an old stone-lined well or the crumbling stone foundation of the farmhouse that once lived there hidden amid the growth of the forest-floor like ghostly whispers from the past lingering to tell the story of that land.

Housing: I have very mixed feelings about our current housing situation, but because Paul has this remodeled trailer I have quite a lot of flexibility in this department. Even a run-down house will drive up the price of my forever-farm; by looking at land-only we can afford the larger acreage that we really want. These factors have moved existing housing lower and lower on my list of priorities for my forever-farm property.

How you can help

Lack of capital and land access are the two largest obstacles facing new farmers today and they have certainly played a role in Runamuk’s journey. Investment in the right property would enable us to establish a permanent location, allowing for Runamuk’s expansion into agritourism as a conservation farm.

Share our Story! You can help Runamuk right now just by sharing our search for our forever-farm property! This can help just by connecting us with land-owners who might be able to help us, or it might inspire friends in your network to share our story too. Sharing also helps us to grow our blog and reach new people who have not heard of Runamuk or our mission to save the world by saving bees. Share our forever-farm graphic, share my articles, share the link to our website or our facebook fanpage; share share share!

Make the Connection! Sometimes land-owners and new farmers work out arrangements that allow the beginning farmer to purchase land when traditional financing is not an option. If─by chance─you or someone you know has property in the Phillips, Maine area that they are committed to preserving for future generations, and if that someone has the means to offer a beginning farmer like me an owner-financed option, by all means─please share our search for Runamuk’s forever-farm home with them!

Join the Team! Crowdfunding is a big deal and not to be taken lightly. It’s a lot of work to run a successful fundraising campaign. If you’d like to be a part of bringing the Runamuk Conservation Farm to life, feel free to drop me a line. We could use all the help we can get!

Donate! If you are able to donate and want to give to our project we are humbled and grateful. Every dollar pledged will be used to secure a forever-farm home for Runamuk so that we can build this pollinator conservation farm, allowing us to teach bee-friendly coexistence and make those lessons accessible to the public. You can wait until the official start of the crowdfunding campaign on October 1st, or feel free to donate now using the “Buy me a coffee” widget in the lower left-hand corner of our site (powered by PayPal). Local friends and supporters who wish to help can pledge their support in person too, which actually means we’ll get to keep the entire donation as opposed to online transactions which accrue a processing fee.

For the good of us all

Runamuk’s income is growing─I’m projecting Runamuk will gross over $12K this year; that might be enough to go for a loan with the FSA or Farm Credit East. Regardless of which path I take to farm-ownership I know I’m going to need a down payment. Currently I’m working at Johnny’s Selected Seeds part-time to be able to bring my dream to life. I have $1200 saved and I’m working hard to keep expenses down so that we can continue to save for our forever-farm property.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to attempt a crowdfunding campaign for Runamuk. It’s not easy to ask people for money─hell! I have a hard time sometimes just charging friends for eggs! The idea of exposing myself online in such a big way is terrifying and I hesitate even as I am continuing to work on this infernal campaign. Yet, sometimes strangers actually do donate to Runamuk─see the “Buy me a coffee!” graphic at the bottom of the sidebar along the left here? Sometimes total strangers actually donate significant chunks of change because they found the info on this site useful, or because they were inspired by our mission. That was the deciding factor in the “Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm” campaign. People are noticing that our pollinator populations are significantly reduced and they want to help.

runamuk beekeeperIn a bizarre twist of fate, the girl who was once fearful of “bugs” has found her calling in life working with bees and for bees and other pollinators. Whatever the reason, this dream that I have for the Runamuk Conservation Farm won’t leave me be and so I must try however I can to see it brought to life. For the good of us all, people need to know how they can help pollinators; much in our world depends on these tiny creatures and the job they perform. If I can help through my work with the Runamuk Conservation Farm, then I feel I will have served the Earth and society in the best way I could.

You can help Runamuk find it’s forever-farm just by sharing our story with friends and family! Be sure to check back soon for more updates! Things are getting interesting! [paypal-donation]

3 Easy Ways To Promote Native Bees On Your Farm Or Homestead

For farmers and homesteaders, it just makes sense to promote the myriad of native bees on your farm.  By encouraging native bees you’re effectively promoting the overall health of the  ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer─since bees are a keystone species and their health and well-being directly impacts plants and animals all the way up the food chain.  A healthy ecosystem is going to result in improved yields; whether you’re farming for vegetables, or farming grass for your cattle herd─the health of your farm’s ecosystem can directly impact your harvest─and so too your profitability.

Note: See this post for more details about the benefits of supporting native pollinators on your farm, and this one for information about who exactly the pollinators are. For the purposes of this article we will be talking largely about native bees, of which there are some 4000 species in North America, and more than 20,000 world-wide.

promoting native bees on your farm or homesteadStep 1 – Recognize existing native bee habitat

Once you’ve committed yourself to the concept of promoting your local native bee populations, there are a number of ways you can improve and create habitat, safe-guard their existence, and encourage their proliferation. First evaluate your farm for existing nesting habitat.  Often we have colonies of native bees present that we are simply overlooking.  Take a walk around your farm to look for these areas.

Sites for ground-nesting bees: Remember that 70% of native bees are ground-nesters.  Look for spots where the soil is of poor quality, bare or sparsely vegetated.  Look for the entrances of ground-nesting native bees. Often they will be marked by a small mound of soil that has been excavated, but it may also be little more than a small hole in the ground.  Usually they will be located in marginal area of the farm, like the banks of drainage ditches or close to buildings or other structures.

By encouraging native bees you can promote the overall health of the ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer. Click to learn more from Runamuk Acres Farm & Apiary in Maine!

Sites for wood and cavity-nesting bees: These bees typically do not excavate their own nests–instead they take advantage of the tunnels created by burrowing beetle larvae in dead wood.  They might utilize the center of pithy-stemmed shrubs , while bumble bees frequently nest in old rodent burrows or under tussocks of grass.  Look for dead wood, brush piles, dense shrubby snags, and overgrown native bunch grasses.

Food for Bees

Once you’ve noticed that native bees are indeed present, learn to recognize the plants supporting them.  The best of these will be crawling with many insects─mostly bees─and may be found in area along the roadside, in field boarders, around farm buildings and under utility easements.  These flowers are not a distraction from your crops, as they actually help local bees to reproduce with greater success.

What’s available & when? Try to discern how much forage is available for the native bees.  A study performed by researchers at the University of California, show that when approximately 30% of the land within three-quarters of a mile of the crop-fields is growing natural habitat, native bees can provide all the pollination necessary for a crop of watermelon.  In Canada, Lora Morandin from the University of California discovered that in the absence of honeybees, canola farmers can maximize their income if 30% of the farmland is left in it’s natural habitat─thanks to pollination by wild bees.

Look at the flowers, shrubs, and even the trees growing on and around your farm.  Are they mostly native species?  Do you have a mix of native and naturalized (non-invasive) species, or do you have invasive flowering weeds present on the property? How far away from the farm and your crop-fields are these areas located? The typical foraging distance of native bees is about 500-feet to half a mile from their nest, with the larger species flying farther than the small ones.  Large area of pollinator habitat should be within half a mile of an insect-pollinated crop in order to be of the greatest benefit for crop production.

early spring maple forage for native bees
Many trees–such as the maple pictured–provide early spring food for pollinators.

Take note of the point in the season when they flower─which plants flower in the spring, which in the summer, and which ones flower in the fall?  How many are flowering during each season?  Native bees need forage available throughout the duration of the growing season in order to reproduce and survive.

What are the landscape features of your farm?  How many acres is the average size of your crop field?  What additional landscape features are located within a mile of the crop field?  For example─do you have existing vegetative buffers, to catch drifting insecticides (if you use them), hedgerows, windbreaks, fence-rows of diverse tree and shrub species.  Do you maintain flowering cover crops or a bee-pasture, or do you allow any crops to bolt and flower, which also offers forage for native pollinators.  Do you have a water source for native bees on the farm? Once you’ve found these nesting and foraging sites, leave them alone─preserve them─make the commitment to keep those sites in tact in order to maintain the existing populations of native bees.

Step 2 – Adapt your farming practices

Farmers can help preserve local populations of native bees by making adjustments to their management practices.  Even minor changes can make a big difference.

agriope spider reduces pest pressure in sustainable farming
Beneficial insects like this agriope spider thrive when bee-friendly practices are employed, reducing pest-pressure in the garden or crop-fields.

Are you using insecticides? Ultimately, one of the best things a farmer can do is to avoid the use of pesticides.  Most pesticides kill native bees directly─on contact, while others kill bees indirectly─the pesticide may be carried inadvertently back to the hive in the pollen and nectar, and fed to other bees.  Even some fungicides can kill bees directly–or they may have a sub-lethal effect on the bees–reducing the numbers of offspring the female bee can produce for the next season. When insecticides can’t be avoided─employing an IPM program (Integrated Pest Management) is a good measure for controlling pests and protecting native bees at the same time.  Should the need to apply an insecticide or fungicide arise─spraying at night, when─pollinators are inactive, spraying only outside of bloom periods, and carefully considering the drift path of insecticides─are important methods for protecting existing populations of native bees.

Tillage and weed control: Extensive tillage destroys the nests of shallow ground-nesting bees, and hinders the emergence of bees nesting deeper in the ground.  Farmers should look for nest sites that already exist before tilling. Some native bees are very tightly connected with their host flowers─such as squash bees with cucurbit crops.  The females may dig vertical tunnels in the ground directly next to the plant, and the next generation of bees are typically concentrated 6-12 inches below the surface of the ground.  Plowing destroys these nests, and kills most of the developing bees.  Farmers who discover squash bees living in their fields of melons and squash should try setting their plows at shallower depths─less than 6 inches─or look into no-till practices.

Land management techniques: Are you grazing, burning, mowing, or haying on and around your farm?  Each of these methods have positive and negative impacts on your local native bee populations.  Consider all aspects carefully before moving ahead with maintenance of the landscape.

Grazing – While common practice─can alter the structure, diversity, and growth of the vegetation within a habitat, which can impact the local insect community.  When flowers are scarce, grazing can result in insufficient forage for pollinators.  Grazing also poses the threat of destroying potential and existing nest sites, and can result in the direct trampling of adult bees.

Burning – Fire management of the landscape can have a highly variable effect on insect communities.  When used appropriately, fire can restore and maintain habitat for pollinators; but if used too frequently it can result in a dramatic decrease of invertebrate populations.

bee-friendly rotational field mowing
A mowing rotation can help boost pollinator populations.

Mowing – Like grazing, mowing can suppress the growth of woody vegetation─thus maintaining vegetative pastures where pollinators thrive.  However─it can also negatively impact insects through direct mortality─especially of the egg and larval stages when nests are mowed under, because those bees cannot escape.

Mowing also creates a uniform field─destroying features like the grass tussocks that bumble bees prefer to nest under.  What’s more─mowing very abruptly removes almost all flowers. The landscape can still be managed though─to maintain those open areas─if farmers conduct mowing and burning when plants and pollinators are dormant (in the late fall and throughout the winter months─depending on where you are located).  Limit the disturbance to one-third or one-fourth of the landscape, to ensure the survival of some of the native bee populations, so that they may recolonize the managed area.  And practice rotational grazing─using a carefully planned to suit the conditions of the site.

Practice bee-friendly farm management: There are a number of ways farmers can adjust their management practices to encourage pollinator populations on and around their farms.  Even the most minor changes can make the world of difference to your native bees.

  • Diversity of crops – Growing a wide variety of crops can support native bees by extending the bloom period.
  • Staggered plantings – If you specialize in a single crop, consider succession plantings to encourage pollinator populations.  For example─growing early and late-flowering blueberries or apples allows more foraging time by the native bees─increasing their reproductive success.
  • mustard gone to flower
    Mustard that has gone to flower in the garden.

    Allow some crops to bolt – Leaving a portion of your crop in the ground, and allowing them to mature and flower before you plow them under is a simple delay in management that provides an additional source of food for your bees.

  • Strategic crop rotation – When rotating crops, moving it to a new field 500-1000 feet away allows the offspring of the bees that are currently foraging on that crops flowers to find the new site the following year.
  • Non-chemical alternatives to pesticides – Maintain a healthy and diverse landscape to deter pests and diseases.  Practice biological controls, such as hand-picking or crushing larger insects, or spraying with soapy water.  Employ good sanitation practices: remove infected leaves and the previous year’s crop from the area to further limit the spread of disease.  For larger farms where hand-picking is not practical, utilizing IPM methods can be a good compromise.
  • Tolerate weeds – While weed management is important for successful crop production–some weeds are important food sources for bees and other beneficial insects.  Tolerating the presence of weeds on the farm can go a long way toward providing additional food for crop-pollinating insects. Maybe you have areas weeds can be allowed to grow, or select weeds you can coexist with?

Step 3 – Provide additional habitat

If you’re looking to actively increase the populations of resident bees on your farm─-you can increase the available foraging habitat to include a range of plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall─providing an abundant supply of pollen and nectar all season long.

buckwheat cover crop
A cover crop improves soil conditions and reduces weed pressure, all while feeding important beneficial insects.

Cover crops & bee-pastures: Growing appropriate cover crops and letting them bloom, or devoting some areas to specialized bee-pastures are 2 easy ways to include your native bees. Bee-pastures are fields growing plants that offer superior food for bees.  They offer an abundant bloom throughout the nesting period and especially during the larval stages, and bee-emergence.  Usually these pasture consist of high-density wildflower meadows with a diversity of plant species, including many native plant varieties, but possibly some non-native species which are not aggressive or invasive.

Understory plantings: Try using cover crops as understory plantings in orchards, where the flowers bloom all at once, and then are gone, leaving little else for the rest of the year, or use clover in the pathways of your gardens and crop fields.

Smaller plantings throughout the farm: Placing smaller plantings of wildflowers every 500-feet throughout the farm helps native bees move deeper into the farm.  These potential nesting sites mean the bees won’t have to go far from where they are foraging on a crop to find new food sources coming into bloom once your crop has flowered.

Start today!

Promoting the health of your farm’s ecosystem by focusing conservation efforts on native bees is a great way to increase the viability of your farm.  There are programs available for farmers interested in pollinator conservation–contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service to find out more about the resources they’re offering farmers to do just that.  And keep in mind that some of the best measures you can take actually reduce your expenses–or cost nothing whatsoever–so what are you waiting for? Start today!

What do you think? Is it worth it to go the extra mile to promote the health of your farm’s ecosystem? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below!