May is a Blur

These last 6 weeks are a blur. May is always crazy-busy for farmers and homesteaders across the northern hemisphere. How can it be June already? Here at Runamuk Acres, yours truly has struggled to find a balance between the farm-kitchen and the outside work, overwhelmed with all of the task clamoring for my attention. This is the time of year to get crops in the ground for vegetable production. It is also the time for cover cropping, pasture management, soil improvement, rotational grazing, honeybee production, and improvements to infrastructure. Take a moment now, to find out what we’ve been working on here at this small farm in the western mountains region of Maine.

May Lambs at Runamuk

When I look back over it, these last 6 weeks really are a bit of a blur. I’m always gung-ho to get outside in the spring, following winter’s long incarceration. Within me, there’s this very pressing need to feel the breath of wind on my skin, to touch and be a part of that world outside my door. A need to be at-one with this little patch of Earth that I call home, surrounded by countless other lifeforms─all simply existing here. It is a wondrous and magical thing which has me spellbound, caught in the grip of something bigger and more powerful than myself.

And so, I have doggedly forged ahead with my seasonal work. My mission: to grow food for my family and community, while simultaneously promoting the health and well-being of the habitat I share with the wildlife around me.

Fencing

The main focus, of course, has been the gardens. Yet, before I could give myself over completely to working the soil, I first had to ensure that the sheep and pigs could be secure on the field. That process required time dedicated to making seasonal repairs and improvements to the fencing system that both contains and protects Runamuk’s 23 finnsheep, along with the 6 pigs we are raising for CSA members.

One of last year’s big accomplishments was the long row of T-posts that runs through the middle of Runamuk’s 10-acre backfield. My solar chargers had become weak over time, and no longer contained our wiley flock. About the time I was startled awake at 4am one Saturday morning by an unmistakable “baaaaaaa”, I’d had enough of their shenanigans. When you have to bolt out of bed to wrangle sheep in your pajamas at 4 in the morning, something has to change!

Deron set up an outlet at the edge of the field for me, and now we use a electric fence charger to power the long line of electric fence. I attach electric net fences to that, rotating the sheep around the field. It’s a huge peace of mind, knowing that the sheep are safely contained inside a secure fence. I can leave the farm to make deliveries, do a supply run, or go out for an evening without worry that they might be roving the neighborhood─or standing in the middle of nearby route 16.

It was quite a checklist of projects that had to be seen to before I could move the flock from their winter accommodations up by the farmhouse, out onto the field for the summer. Broken insulators had to be replaced. The wires that make up the electric fencelines had to be mended and/or tightened. The grounding system needed to be beefed-up, and the sheep-tractor needed repairs, too, after a gusty storm had sent it rolling across the field last fall, causing damage to the roof of the structure. It was the first week of May before everything was ready.

Pig Date

May Piglets
The pigs are loving the spent grain sent to us by the Kennebec Brewery!

Deron and I drove over to Maple Lane Farms in Charleston on Mother’s Day weekend to pick up 6 piglets. We put the back seats down in my trusty Subaru Forester, laid out a heavy rubber floor mat from Deron’s mini-van, and put those pigs right in the back of my car. Do I even need to say that we made the hour and a half ride home with the windows open???

Deron called it our “Pig Date”, lol. I have to laugh at the irony of it all. Nothing says “farmer” like a Pig Date─and nothing makes a girl feel sexier than that (insert facepalm here)!

Athletic Sheep

You’d be surprised by how athletic sheep can suddenly become on Moving Day. I was down to my last few bales of hay, though, and moving the flock out onto the field couldn’t wait any longer. Putting the lambs in the back of the Subaru, we took that out first. Then, BraeTek and I managed to coerce the girls out onto the field with only some minor shenanigans.

For the boys, however, I put out an APB (all points bulletin) on facebook seeking volunteers to assist us. 5 locals come to the farm that evening, and I am super grateful for the help. Even with extra bodies, and extra fences set up to “guide” the 5 rams in the direction of the field, the foolish boys had to take the scenic route to get there. At one point, they were nearly in the road, followed by a parade through the garden. Eventually we managed to capture them inside the fencing on the field, and all was well.

Re-Grouping

Once the pigs and sheep were all blissfully settled out on the pasture, I was finally free to turn my attention to the gardens. This year has largely been about tackling some of the bigger projects that have been on my list for the last 3 or 4 years. It’s been about re-grouping, taking a step back in order to take a step forward, shifting gears, and making it all work for me. This has been a season for accepting my farm for what it is─and letting go of what it will never be.

The gardens here at Runamuk, have all─quite literally─“run-a-muck”. To varying degree, the 2 vegetable gardens, 3 perennial gardens, along with my little orchard, have all gotten out of hand here. That’s what happens when you take on too much, too soon. I’m just one person trying to make this farm work. I’ve been spread too thin these last few years─and it shows.

May Sheep at Runamuk Acres
Big thanks to the 5 volunteers who came to help us move the rams! You know who you are!

I’m not too proud to admit that I have some serious farmer-envy when I drive by other local farms… I see all of their beds laid out perfectly with crops growing along so lush and green. With their employees out weeding or harvesting product to sell. I see their high-tunnels, heated greenhouses, and their sexy tractors (yes, I think your tractor’s sexy, lol). I see their farm truck with their slick branding on the doors─and I want to be them.

I’ve had to accept that I’m just never going to be like Elliot Coleman, Jean Martin Fortier, or Conor Crickmore. I’ll never be the next Curtis Stone, or Joel Salatin.

This is partly because I lack the funds. Runamuk has been bootstrapped along since it’s conception, and finances continue to be an issue today. To be honest, though─I believe the fact that I am a single-mom and solo-farmer plays a big part, too.

Those guys all have wives, partners in life─even employees─to help them achieve that level of production on their farms. I am trying to do this largely by myself, while raising my 15 year old son. As a mom, I have to maintain some semblance of family life and routine. Since we homeschool, I also have a responsibility to my son’s education. Ultimately, I am responsible for molding my son into the kind of man I would want to see in the world. Having met some of the men out there, I take that very seriously.

I’m never going to be the next Elliot Coleman. So what? I’m really okay with that. I’m still feeding 40 households, plus a select portion of my surrounding community. That’s nothing to thumb your nose at. My focus now, is to embrace my farm-journey for what it is, let go of what it is not, and make it work for me─and my son.

Spring Projects

With that in mind, I’ve forged ahead with my spring projects. With an eye toward improving the soil through a succession of cover-crops, I’ve taken half of Garden 2 out of production, cover cropping it with peas and oats. That will get mowed at some point later in the season, tilled in, and another cover-crop planted for the fall. Stay tuned for more on that later.

I tilled up the lawn around the 9 apple trees that make up my front orchard, re-sowing it with New Zealand Dwarf White Clover. Clover has an extensive root system that gives structure to the soil, adding nitrogen, while offering a flowering food source for bees and other beneficial insects. Growing not more than 12-inches, this dwarf clover will make a low-maintenance ground cover that reduces the amount of lawn we will be mowing here.

Retreating to the much smaller, Garden 1, Deron helped me re-claim planting beds there, so that I might have a defensible growing space. I’ve had my hands in the soil every day since, a flurry of planting, as I try to utilize every square foot of that garden. I am eager to get into the bigger garden, to re-claim some of that space, and put it to work growing even more food.

The Farmstand

May Farmstand
Locals love our fresh bread and baked goods!

Since I’ve given up on housemates, finances have been especially tight this season. The income generated by those room rentals has been sorely missed. BUT─trying to accommodate strangers in the midst of my family and farm has not. Really, it has been pretty wonderful for BraeTek and I to have the house to ourselves.

That freedom has led to the growth of our farmstand, which is gaining traction, with more and more folks stopping in for our fresh-baked breads, and other delicious baked goods. It’s tricky, though, for this solo-farmer to keep bread coming out of the kitchen, while simultaneously trying to plant half an acre of vegetables. Throughout the month of May, I’ve had to take a couple weeks off from the kitchen, offering only the frozen loaves I’ve had in reserve. Mostly the community seems to be watching, waiting for those first fresh veggies of the season. We’re all craving it.

The biggest news, though, is my book announcement.

Wait─whaaaaaaaat?

Book Announcement!

That’s right, my friends! Just because I haven’t been publishing blog-posts, doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I am a writer, remember? I actually have a couple of different manuscripts that I’ve been working on. Yay me!

It’s been 4 years this month, since I closed on my forever-farm, and I am super excited to say that I am finally writing my book! “How to Buy a Farm With No Money Through the Farm Service Agency”or “How to Bootstrap Your Way to Farm Ownership” (Okay, so the title needs work, lol─leave your suggestions in the comments!). It’s totally possible to make farm-ownership a reality, even if you have no money. It’s a long road, and not for the feint of heart─but it is possible. I truly believe that if I can do it, so can you. So can anyone─if they want it bad enough.

My goal is to have the book finished and ready to launch by the end of September. It will come out first as an ebook available through Amazon’s direct publishing service, followed by availability on Audible and more! Sign up below to receive notifications about the book-launch!

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Person to Person

For this farmer, May came and went in a blur. Now here we are mid-way through June, and I still have a lot of planting to do. Along with 3 “Big-Fish” projects that I am determined to make happen before the end of 2022: 1) set up a pond-pump for a back-up water system. 2) repurpose our existing tunnel into a winter compost-hut. And─most importantly─#3) erect a caterpillar tunnel for season extension in Garden 2.

You know what? So what if my farm doesn’t look like 4 Seasons Farm, or Neversink Farm? Hell, I could never be the next Elliot Coleman even if I wanted to be, because I’m too busy being me! Samantha Burns! Even at this small scale, Runamuk is providing fresh and nutritious locally produced food for it’s community─just like those other farms are doing. I’m damned proud of that. We will grow, you’ll see. I doubt, however, that Runamuk will ever be as big as some of these other big-name farms. And I’m okay with that.

It was Mother Teresa who once said, “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” Maybe I can make more of an impact by keeping my efforts condensed and focused on a smaller scale, than I otherwise might have done at the scale those other farms are running at. Perhaps, my work is meant to be conducted farmer to family, and person to person. I cannot say, but I am grateful for the opportunity to try.

Thank you for following along with the journey of this female-farmer! It is truly my privilege to be able to live this life, serve my family and community, and to protect wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more updates from the farm, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love to you and yours, my friends!

Hard Lessons

Your friendly neighborhood farmer has learned some hard lessons in animal husbandry over the past three weeks. Since I last posted, all of my ewes have delivered with varying degrees of success. Of the fifteen lambs born to Runamuk this season, two lambs perished, and I have two in the house at this very moment. All of the others are strong and healthy, growing just as they should, without care or concern. I invite you to join me on the farm now, as I share the story of this farm’s 2022 lambing season with all it’s highs and lows.

I Love My Finnsheep!

Let me start off by saying how much I love my Finnsheep! I thank my friend, Kamala Hahn at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, for indoctrinating me into the Finn fan-club. A hardy breed, originating from Finland, Finns are not the largest of sheep, making them easier to handle. Their wool is next-to-skin quality, oh-so-soft, in a wide variety of colors, and their meat is reknown for being some of the most flavorful lamb you can get. Finns are relatively easy keepers, friendly and personable, with lots of character. The ewes are generally good mothers, known for producing litters of multiple lambs without fuss. After two easy lambing seasons, I felt fairly confident as I came into my third year as flock-keeper.

Up til this year, my ewes had thrown only twins and single lambs. I was looking forward to a larger set, and hoped this would be the year. In that regard, I was not disappointed. On a Saturday night, two weeks back, one of my ewes by the name of Maleficent, gave me my first-ever set of triplets. An hour later, Fiona produced a whopping set of four lambs! The following morning upon waking, a visit to the Ewe-Shed found a third mum had produced a set of twins in the wee-hours of the morning. What a night! I was beside myself─overjoyed with the productivity of my flock.

Everyone looked good to this novice’s eyes. Mums all came through with flying colors. Babies were all in tact. Though the lambs of the litters of three and four were all very tiny, I’d had some smaller ewes produce very tiny lambs before, so I didn’t think much of it. I made sure each lamb got latched onto it’s mum’s teat for a good feed of the critically important colostrum, and checked on them frequently throughout the day.

This particular weekend happened to be the first in two years that my sweetheart, Deron, could not be with me for our regular visit due to a family crisis. Typically he spends Friday and Saturday nights at the farm. Then, on Sundays, I join him at his parent’s home for a family supper, then spend the night at his place in Solon. Since everyone seemed to be doing well, and with the lamb-cam to spy on any new deliveries, I caved to my longing to spend just one night with my huny. I left the farm late that Sunday afternoon.

Hard Lessons

Of course I checked the lamb-cam while I was off the farm that Sunday evening─repeatedly. I even woke periodically during the night, pulling the app up on my phone to make sure all was well. Unfortunately, with so many little lambs, it’s hard to see some of the finer details from a distance like that. It wasn’t until I was back on the farm the next morning that I realized one of Maleficent’s three babies was missing. I released the ewe from the confines of the lambing pen, and only two lambs tottered out after her. Where was the third???

I checked behind the water bucket, and under the hay-net, to see if the poor thing had gotten trapped there. No lamb. Panic welled in my throat─where could it be? What could have happened?

When I spied a telltale tuft of white fuzz peeking above the litter of the lambing pen, I felt sick to my stomach. What had I done?

The ewes will often kick up the bedding material in the shed, and in their lambing pens too, to make a sort of nest for themselves to lay in. This tiny, little lamb had gotten buried in the litter. Whether or not it was intentional on Maleficent’s part, I cannot say. Sometimes, ewes will reject a lamb if there is something wrong with it, or if they feel instinctively that they cannot provide for that mouth. Even if the lamb was destined to be rejected by her mum, I feel fairly certain that if I had been on the farm to check on the lambs in person, I could have at least saved it to be a bottle baby.

To make matters worse, another of Maleficent’s babies took a chill that night. Concerned, and not wanting to lose any more precious babies, I corralled the ewe back into a lambing pen with her two remaining lambs. Thanks to my two previous “easy seasons”, though I diligently monitored the situation, I did not recognize the danger the poor fellow was in. He was nursing periodically, but sleeping more and more. The following morning when I went out at sunrise, the lamb lay sprawled, all but lifeless, on the floor of the lambing pen.

Near to tears with the shame of my failures, I immediately took the lamb into the house. I made every attempt to rescue him, but it was already too late. He slipped away from us. It took a few days before Maleficent finally stopped crying for her lost babies, her eyes pleading with me to return her lambs to her.

Maleficent and her remaining baby are doing well now.

I know that it’s entirely possible those two lambs might have been doomed with or without me, yet the pain of those losses lingers in my heart. I blame myself. You can be sure, the hard lessons those two babies taught me will not be forgotten. Larger litters of multiple lambs are a wonderful thing, but just as triplets and quadruplets born to humans, multiples of sheep are so much smaller and frailer than a single baby, or even twins. They require much more diligence from the farmer. Finnsheep may be fantastic mothers, but that many mouths are harder for them to keep track of. Perhaps most importantly, newborns require my vigilance for the first forty-eight hours─minimum. I can’t be caving to the longings of my heart for the nearness of my boyfriend. No matter how sweet he is to me, nor how much I miss him. Farmers do not have that privilege.

Rejected

It was a little over a week following the loss of Maleficent’s two babies that my last ewe finally went into labor. “Baby” was last year’s bottle baby, whom I never really gave a name. Laughingly, I tell people that she was named after the main character from the movie Dirty Dancing (“nobody puts Baby in the corner”), but the truth is─she was my baby, and I’ve just always called her Baby, lol. She is a very small ewe, from a very small mother. I hadn’t intended for her to be bred, but I guess my ram had other ideas…

I worried about Baby’s birthing prospects, and stayed with her through the entire ordeal. Indeed, she did struggle to bring forth the single lamb she carried. It was a long labor, and the lamb’s legs were not in the right position. Once the little guy had emerged, Baby was less than impressed. It was hard to watch as she head-butted the tiny lamb, pawing at him with her front hooves, and attempting to cover him over with the litter at the bottom of the lambing pen. I toweled him off and tried to get Baby to allow the newborn to suckle at her teats. Unfortunately, Baby wanted no part of this creature that had caused her so much pain and difficulty. She was still very young, and not ready to be a mother.

The shenanigans start at an early age…

Fearing for the lamb’s life, I made the call to take the rejected lamb from the ewe. I refused to allow another lamb to perish on my watch. For the last week and a half, the little ram has been living inside the farmhouse. He eats from a bottle, and sleeps in a playpen I scored for $5 last year at the Embden Community Center’s thrift shop. After such an awful entrance into the world, I thought the little guy needed some kind of empowering name, so BraeTek dubbed him “Big Man”. Mercifully, this little lamb is thriving under the care of his farmer.

Perks of the Job

Our young CSA member, Saffron (in pink), shares her farm with her friends.

One of the perks of the job is being able to share bits and pieces of farm-life with the public. Initially, the lamb was eating every two hours, so when I left the farm last Friday to make my CSA deliveries, I couldn’t just leave the infant at home alone. I put him on a towel in a wooden apple crate and placed him on the passenger seat of my Subaru. He traveled that way, making the Madison-Solon loop with me, pausing at Deron’s long enough to feed him another bottle before we continued on to Harmony to make our final delivery. On our way back to New Portland, I stopped by the Solon Corner Store to pick up some weekend provisions. Reluctant to leave Big Man alone in the car, I tucked the four-day old lamb under an arm, and took him into the store with me.

My friend, Trin, finds spending time with the lambs to be very healing.

Since Deron’s home is located in Solon, I am frequently in and out of the Solon Corner Store when I go to visit my sweetie. The clerks there have come to recognize me, and know something of my farm. They all knew I’d been welcoming new lambs to the farm, yet these ladies fairly melted at the sight of Big Man! I wish I could have gotten it on video to share with you.

Heedless of the other customers waiting to check out, Gayle came around from behind the counter to get a closer look. I placed that bundle of legs and wool in her arms for a few moments, allowing the cashier to gush over the lamb. She brought him close for a handful of other shoppers to pet him, before relinquishing Big Man back to my care. Needless to say, there was quite a line behind me once I’d finally checked out with my things, lol. And then Gayle offered to carry my bags out for me hahaha!

No one complained though…it’s not every day you get to see a teeny tiny baby lamb in the grocery store.

Quasimodo

It was the day following the grocery store scene that I realized something was not right with one of Fiona’s quadruplets. Again, with so many mouths to feed, it’s harder for the ewes to care for their offspring appropriately. Concerned about the runt of the litter, who was all hunched over and pitiful looking, I’d taken to bottle feeding him in the Ewe-Shed. Over the course of the week, I was trucking out there several times a day with a bottle for the lamb I called Quasimodo, the hunchback of Runamuk Acres (I know─not funny, but funny. What can I say, lol, I have a perverse sense of humor.). I had hoped that the bottle feedings would bring an improvement in the little guy. Unfortunately, on that Saturday morning Quasi was looking particularly cold and pathetic, so I made the calldecided to bring him inside for some extra attention.

That’s when I realized just how much Quasimodo struggles to move around. I did some research and found that sometimes babies of large litters can be born with under-developed hind legs. This can be due to a nutrient deficiency, or because of the cramped quarters in-utero. I believe that is what is going on in Quasimodo’s case, and have given him a selenium/vitamin E supplement, as well as an injection of vitamin B. Though I have seen some improvement, and overall he is content enough to keep Big Man company here inside the farmhouse, it will take time and exercise for his muscles to develop properly─if at all. Another of Mother Nature’s hard lessons in animal husbandry this year.

New Donate Button!

Pan, the Lamb.

On a completely separate note, I would like to take this opportunity to point out to followers the new Donate button in my website’s sidebar. I’ve fielded a number of requests for a Wish List on Runamuk’s website. Folks want to know what it is we are needing here, so they can donate items if they have something they’re no longer using that might help our cause. I have had one listed, but it’s rather buried amid the other pages listed on the drop-down menu under the “About Us” tab. This Donate button will now take visitors directly to that page. Woot woot!

Donations have come to Runamuk in many forms─monetary donations, yes, but also donations of materials, equipment, and supplies. I’ve even had folks volunteer their time and energy to lend a hand on the farm for a day. I also barter for the things we need, trading farm-goods at a fair market value for the item being traded to the farm. There is a PayPal button on that page for those who are able and inclined to donate funds to this farm, but donations come in many forms, and cash is not the only means of greasing the wheels here. Every donation makes a big difference in this mother-and-son driven farm. I am always grateful for every gift or trade, small or large, because they allow me to keep doing what I do─nourishing and educating my family, and my community. That’s what it’s all about, my friends.

The Life of a Farmer

Mother Nature is a beautiful─but sometimes ruthless─mistress. With these hard lessons, She’s reminded me this year that it does not do to grow complacent in Her presence. As a farmer, I must always be vigilant for the lives I am responsible for: human, plant or animal, vertebrate or invertebrate, fungal or microbial, wild or domesticated. This is the life I have chosen to live─the life of a farmer. While there are certainly a great many blessings to be thankful for, there are equally as many burdens associated with it, and I must bear them. Come hell or high water, this farm must thrive.

Thank you for following along with the journey of this female-farmer! It is truly my privilege to be able to live this life, serve my family and community, and to protect wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more updates from the farm, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love to you and yours, my friends!

Sick Sheep Seldom Survive

miracle the sheep

Sick sheep seldom survive; that’s what Gordon Blauvelt told me this week when I stopped in to retrieve 2 more bags of grain for the sheep. Miracle’s second round of antibiotics and all of the extra grain and alfalfa cubes I’d been feeding her had not improved her health or conditioning. Her breathing was fast and shallow, she continued to lose weight─and she had this sickly sweet smell about her. It had gotten to the point that I felt her quality of life was decreasing by the day, and I knew what needed to be done.

Before I could let Miracle go, however, I needed to line up a new sheep to keep Lily company; sheep are gregarious animals and always want at least one or two companions. Thus, I began the search for new sheep to bring to Runamuk.

Finnsheep!

Miracle and Lily are romneys that were given to me by the Blauvelts, and they are beautiful, wonderful animals, but the breed I really want to work with are known as “Finnsheep“. As a conservation farm, I like to focus on heritage breeds and old breeds that are in need of preservation. Finnsheep are a breed of native Landrace sheep of Northern European origin, with major flocks in Finland and Denmark. The breed is several hundred years old, adapted to Finland’s harsh climate and available rough forage. They are hardy creatures with strong maternal instincts that produce a very fine, lustrous wool, and superior meat.

Personally, I prefer breeds that are derived from climates similar to the conditions that I face here in Maine, and I always like to hear the word hardy used when describing an animal or plant. Even still, it was my friend Kamala who sealed the deal for me.

Kamala and her husband Ken, have a flock of Finnsheep that I’ve cared for on occasion for the family, and I’ve found the sheep always to be engaging, full of quirk and personality, enthusiastic─and very outspoken. I also like the way the animals look, and their variety of colors. Ask Kamala why Finnsheep are a good choice and she’ll gladly launch into a matter-of-fact run-down of all the reasons why Finnsheep are the best choice for the small, homestead farmer.

And so I decided that if I were going to invest any money in sheep, Finns were the breed for me.

Unfortunately, they’re not an especially common breed, and time was against me. Miracle was still eating and moving around fine, but her health was going downhill faster every day, and I felt she was really only hanging on for Lily’s sake. I needed another 1-2 sheep as soon as possible so that I could relieve Miracle of her burdens─preferably ***more than 1*** new addition, so that I would never again find myself in a position where someone was sick and needed to be put down, but had to wait for me to find a replacement companion.

Between calls in the Call Center at Johnny’s on Friday I scoured Craigslist, the Uncle Henry’s, and facebook sheep-groups for listings of Finnsheep; I came up with few options. At the urging of another co-worker (thank you Daria!) I checked out Olde Haven Farm of Chelsea, Maine, and beheld the pictures of their beautiful flock of Finnsheep and all the baby lambs.

I was smitten.

A registered purebred is not something I necessarily need for my purposes (mowing and meat), but I like the idea of having just one reliable, high-quality breeder for my little flock of sheep. On impulse I reached out to Pam and Kelby Young at Olde Haven Farm, and reserved myself one of their baby ewes for a June pick-up.

That was super exciting, but it still didn’t solve my urgent need for an immediate companion for Lily, so that Miracle’s fight could be ended.

new ram
Finn ram on Craigslist.

Initially, I’d intended to avoid having a ram on the farm because it adds another level of fencing strategy that I didn’t necessarily need to deal with. Since I have friends with in-tact Finn males, I can easily avoid keeping a ram for my small flock’s reproduction needs; however, I had been eyeing this handsome 1 year-old Finn ram listed on Craigslist, and decided that it really wasn’t a far stretch at this point for me to step up my sheep operation to include a ram, and so I responded to the ad and set up pick-up for Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Saturday morning dawned, and as I worked through the usual farm-chores, I noticed that Miracle was spending an increasing amount of time lying down and was seeming to seek more and more comfort from me. I was really feeling like her quality of life was really going downhill faster with each passing day, and I did not feel good about making her wait any longer to end the suffering, and so I left work early to make the trip to Hartford to retrieve the ram.

New-Sheep Expedition

Historically, expeditions for new livestock are always something of an ordeal, involving confusing directions, several wrong turns, and then the ride home with critters packed carefully inside the car with me. This sheep-mission certainly lived up to that tradition.

I don’t pay for an expensive cell-phone package, instead opting for a low-cost tracfone and sacrificing signal coverage to get by. Often, if I am not near a strong signal or wi-fi access, I will not have connection or phone capabilities. With that in mind, I printed the Google maps and directions to the address provided by the woman from the Craigslist ad, and set out from the office bound for Hartford.

I managed to keep the wrong-turns to a minimum, but the directions to the address turned out to be incomplete, and I’d neglected to get a contact number for the woman with the sheep, so it took longer than anticipated to find the location. Eventually though, I made it there and heaved a sigh of relief.

The trials of this quest were not over, however.

Go to any Maine farm during the spring thaw and you will find a similar scene: muck and manure, ice, mud, and snow in varying stages of decomposition. At the farm this ram came from, the gate to the enclosure he was kept in was frozen fast in the ice and effectively immovable. In order to retrieve him, the farmer’s 16 year-old son and I had to corral the animal, and heft him over the fence. The young ram, who was unaccustomed to wearing a halter and being tethered, was already stressed and distraught, and bolted at the first opportunity.

It took a few tries and a fair amount of slipping in the soft, squishy manure (for both humans and ovine) til we were all three covered and smeared in the sweet, pungent smelling stuff. I admit I almost left without him because I was concerned that he would be too wild to be contained at Runamuk, but the teenager wouldn’t give up and we eventually managed to get the sheep over the fence and up the path to my Subaru, where we loaded him into the back of the car and celebrated our accomplishment with a fist-bump.

finnsheep
New Finnsheep ram on his way to Runamuk!

Rather Offensive

The ride home went smoothly enough─aside from a pit-stop at a McDonald’s in Jay to use the facilities. I stood there waiting for my order, when a white-haired little old lady came up beside me to retrieve napkins and uttered something inappropriate as she walked away, I realized rather belatedly that I probably smelled rather offensive. Looking down at myself, I saw that I was covered in sheep-manure up to the knees, my sweater and vest were both smeared with manure, and my fingerless gloves were infused with manure too. I was a sight to behold, yet I couldn’t help but laugh as I walked out of the restaurant to see my car with the sheep poking his head out a window.

Miracle’s End-of-Life Procedure

It was about 6pm by the time I arrived home with my new treasure. Unloading and escorting the young ram to the sheep-shed was a much smoother process than it had been to load him, and the sheep had a brief introductory period before my friends Rick and Megan came with Rick’s shotgun to help me with Miracle’s end-of-life procedure.

Coyotes yipped and barked from the forest at the far end of the back-field and I was a bundle of nerves as Rick, Megan, Murphy and I went out to the sheep-shed in the dark. I was determined to do the Deed myself─Miracle and this farm are my responsibility, afterall. But at the last minute, standing there in the narrow pathway alongside the sheep-shed as Miracle feasted on a bucket of grain, I caved and decided to allow my friend make the shot. Rick obliged me without judgement, and it was done in the blink of an eye.

Miracle’s fight was over, but the job was not finished yet. I still had to move her carcass away from the sheep-shed.

Coyotes

To allow Lily time to recognize that her friend was gone, I left Miracle’s body where it lay as I thanked and bade farewell to my friends. Then I returned to finish the job, bringing with me a tarp and a stout rope; I found Lily standing over the dead sheep, mourning the loss of her friend as the coyotes sang their eerie songs under the starry night sky.

I held her and we grieved together for a moment, the sheep and I, then I set to work tying the rope onto 2 corners of the tarp and spreading it out on the pathway. Trying not to look at the devastation of a shot-gun round to the sheep’s head, I took Miracle’s body by the feet and hauled her onto the tarp before taking up the rope and proceeding to drag/slide her carcass out onto the snow that still covers the landscape at Runamuk.

I was feeling a bit fearful about the proximity of the coyotes as I paused to strap on my snowshoes, but leaving the sheep’s dead carcass where it fell was not an option, so I began dragging it out across the snow-covered backyard, deeper into the dark of night. Even though Miracle’s disease had ravaged her body, leaving her alarmingly thin for a sheep, she was still a good hundred pounds or more and heavy enough that I had to lean into the rope, putting my weight into it to haul her away.

One step at a time, I moved out across the snow in the direction of the tree line about a hundred yards behind the garage. Lily maaa’ed from the sheep-shed as I took her friend away and I knew she knew what was going on; my heart hurt for her. Pausing to catch my breath, I listened to the coyotes─were they closer? or was it just my overactive imagination?

I was halfway between the farm and the forest─halfway between the safety of the farm’s infrastructure and the dangers that loomed within the darkened forest. The coyote noises were definitely closer than before, I decided, and called for Murphy to accompany me.

To my chagrin, Murphy refused to follow me out into the black night to face the threat of coyotes in his master’s defense. He was as scared of the coyotes as I was! In a last-ditch effort, I yelled out into the darkness at the coyotes, “Go away! I’m out here and I don’t want to meet you! Baaaaaaah!”

The coyotes were undeterred. In fact, only seemed encouraged, as their yipping and barking increased, drawing ever closer.

From across the road, the neighbor’s small dog began barking, almost as though communicating with the coyotes, who barked back at him. I couldn’t help but imagine the little pomeranian was informing the coyotes of my location, “She’s over here!” and fear liquefied the blood in my veins, turning my limbs to jello. But I had a job to do.

Firming my resolve, I once again leaned into the rope and moved Miracle’s body farther away from the garage and closer to the treeline. I watched for the glint of eyes inside the forest as I approached the trees, hauling the sheep-carcass on the tarp behind me. I was shaking now, trembling harder with every snowshoe-step closer to the trees that I took. The snow was softer here than it was out in the open, and when my snowshoes began to sink more than a foot into the snow, I pictured coyotes leaping out of the forest, seizing the opportunity to attack.

None did, and at length, I came within range of the trees beyond the garden area. Quaking with fear─almost a hundred yards from the garage and the sheep-shed, and maybe 10-15 feet from the trees─I decided that was close enough, and I left her there for the night. Turning, I made my way back toward the farmhouse, looking back to make sure there were no coyotes sneaking up behind me as I fled.

Surprisingly, Miracle was untouched the next morning; the coyotes had not bothered the carcass. In the early light of day I hauled Miracle’s body farther down the field and into the forest where nature could take it’s course.

The Tough Call

It’s not an easy thing to do to end the life of an animal you care for─but it is sometimes necessary. You can give them every possible advantage: quality food, medicine, time and attention─and lots of love─and sometimes they’ll recover, but sometimes they won’t. When it reaches the point that medical treatments are proving to be ineffective and the animal’s quality of life is degrading with every passing day, it is love that must drive you to make the tough call to end the creature’s suffering.

miracle the sheepMiracle was this friendly and affectionate, graham-cracker-loving, woolly love-a-bug that you couldn’t help but fall for. She taught me more about caring for sheep than I could have learned in any book or YouTube video, and she is the reason I now feel that sheep are an important part of the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm. Miracle will always have special place in my heart; may we meet again on the other side.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Subscribe by email to receive the latest updates and articles from Runamuk directly to your in-box, and be sure to follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at every-day life on this 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.