Stepping Down as Manager of the Madison Farmers’ Market

friends at market

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

Why Volunteer?

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

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

Serving the Madison Farmers’ Market

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

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

maine regions map
Madison on the Maine map.

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

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

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

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

Some Highlights From My Career as Market-Manager

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ISO Volunteers

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

That I can’t say….

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

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

Serve Your Community!

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

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

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

State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

Beekeeping in today’s modern environment is probably one of the hardest forms of agriculture that exists. If you can think of a worse one, by all means leave a comment below to share with us lol. Meanwhile, the 2017-2018 winter was another rough winter for beekeepers here in Maine; many beekeepers lost a lot of hives─myself included. At first, with so much riding on the apiary I was afraid to tell anyone, but the fallout from those losses has not been as bad as I had feared and so I bring to you now a sort of “State of the Apiary Address”.

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

Over the course of the winter this year I went from 21 hives to 1. After working so diligently to build my apiary last summer it was a huge disappointment that led me once again to question myself, my abilities, and my path as a farmer. What’s more, with my impending mortgage largely dependent on the success of my apiary, I was terrified that the losses would put an end to my farm-purchase. Both Runamuk and my family desperately need a home to call their own; my days as a landless-farmer have run their course and it is now taking a toll on us all. What would happen if the FSA knew I’d lost 20 hives?

I wasn’t the only one who experienced significant hive-losses, however. The brutal cold Maine experienced in late-December and early-January tested even the strongest hives and beekeepers across the state suffered losses.

Note: For more about the impact of the 2017-2018 winter on Maine bees, check out “It’s been a rough winter for bees” from the Bangor Daily News, written by Peter Cowin─Maine’s own “Bee-Whisperer”.

Telling the FSA

Word of the impacts of the winter on the beekeeping industry eventually reached the USDA and FSA offices and I got an email from Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent who has been handling my loan, asking how I’d made out.

Honestly, there was a moment of utter panic. I was so terrified that if I told him the truth I would lose my chance to buy a farm and secure a home for my family. But I’ve made honesty and transparency a policy in my life, and not telling Nathan the truth was not something I wanted on my conscience─though I admit it totally crossed my mind.

If I’m going to have a relationship with the people at the FSA for the foreseeable future, I want that relationship to be a good one. So far the people I’ve worked with at the government office have only ever tried to help me. They have these resources available to help farmers and they want to do just that─help farmers; even if they are required to abide by the regulations and stipulations mandated by our bureaucratic government.

Besides that─if other beekeepers were sharing stories of loss and I came out with none, how would that look?

When I initially submitted my application and business plan to the FSA back in September, I had included for them a brief report on the nature of beekeeping. It is not common for a farmer to specialize in bees, and I wanted to help educate the FSA staff so that they would understand how a beekeeper can grow their apiary fairly rapidly just by making splits and nucs, and by raising their own Queens, which I am learning to do. I wanted the USDA representatives handling my case to realize that-yes, annual mortality of hives may be high─between 30% and 37% depending on the statistic─but the nature of beekeeping allows savvy beekeepers to rebound from annual losses and still continue to have hives and grow a business.

Once the shock regarding the severity of Runamuk’s winter losses wore off I had devised a plan to recover the apiary. I ordered a combination of packages for honey production, nucleaus colonies for kick-starting my breeding operation, and a dozen Saskatraz queens (Bred in Saskatchewan!!! Should be hardy in Maine, right?). And I still intended to produce at least 20 viable Queens to overwinter as nucleus colonies.

Even with this strategy under my cap, and knowing that I had good people on my side at the FSA, and even knowing that those people had accepted the education I’d offered and had even taken it upon themselves to learn more so as to be best able to help me─I had to have supplemental encouragement from some good friends before I could respond to Nathan’s email about my winter-losses.

I admitted that I was down to 1 hive, and presented my plan for recovery. My heart was in my throat when I hit the send button on that email, and I awaited Nathan’s response in a state of hyper-anxiety─fearing the worst.

Lol, I needn’t have worried. Nathan accepted the facts and was confident that with my strategy the Runamuk apiary would recover and go on to meet the goals I’d projected in my business financials. He merely suggested that I apply for the ELAP program for reimbursement of those hive-losses.

The ELAP Program

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USDA Service Center for Somerset County, located in Skowhegan, Maine.

The ELAP program─or “Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish”─provides emergency assistance to eligible producers for losses due to disease, weather, and wildfire. It turns out that the severe and prolonged cold spell Maine experienced in December and January qualified beekeepers for reimbursement of hives lost as a result.

So I went to see Scott Speck at the Somerset County USDA office, who is the County Executive Director. At this point I’d met everyone in the office but Scott, so now I am fully acquainted with my local USDA/FSA staff─yaaay! Scott gave me the details on the program, we filled out the application and he sent me off with some homework.

Note: For more information on the ELAP program, check out the USDA’s ELAP Fact Sheet.

To qualify for the ELAP assistance I needed to be able to show some record of the existence of said hives─which was easy to do since Nathan had documented and photographed those same hives last fall for the purpose of my farm-loan. But I also needed to have my hives inspected by the Maine State Apiarist: Jennifer Lund, to ensure that “Best Management Practices” had been followed and that the cause of death was actually due to the severe weather conditions.

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

In my nearly 10 years keeping bees I had never once had the state apiarist come to my apiary. Thanks to my volunteer work as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers (formerly), I was involved enough to know what sort of issues were facing the majority of  Maine’s beekeeping community. Any additional problems I encountered I’ve been able to turn to a variety of more experienced beekeepers with whom I am acquainted, so having the state apiarist come solve my problems was never really necessary.

Again I was filled with anxiety─I knew I’d been following the “Best Management Practices” as laid out by the Maine Department of Agriculture, but what if I’d missed something? What if my timing had been off in applying the oxalic acid? Maybe I should have treated just one more time? I didn’t think I’d taken too much honey from the hives, but what if I was wrong? And what if Nathan had suggested the ELAP program as a justifiable means of having my operation assessed before the FSA committed the funds to my farm purchase???

I needn’t have worried; everything turned out fine.

Jennifer Lund met me at the Runamuk apiary located at Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks on a dreary grey day and we proceeded to go through the dead-outs on-site there. Jennifer is probably about my age; she studied at the University of Maine alongside Frank Drummond─one of the leading scientists performing research on native bee populations for the USDA. When Maine’s veteran State Apiarist, Tony Jadczak retired a couple years back, Jennifer applied for the job and got it.

Since she’d been awarded the position I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out why her name rang a bell in my head. We chatted as we surveyed my deceased colonies, and it turned out I had invited Jennifer to come to speak to the Somerset Beekeepers years ago! Mystery solved!

Jennifer checked my dead-outs to see the size of the cluster and their position within the hive, the amount of honey and pollen stores in the hives, along with signs of disease and mite levels among the population of bees. An alcohol-wash sampling revealed that mite levels were within reasonable range, and Jennifer concluded that in a normal winter even the weaker of my colonies likely would have survived. Cause of death was attributed to the weather conditions we’d experienced this year, and I was validated as a beekeeper.

With so many losses each winter it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it right, and whether it’s worth the hassle and heartache. Jennifer put my mind at ease, and my ELAP application is moving forward at the FSA. I should receive a check towards the end of the season, which I intend to use to reimburse myself for some of the replacement bees I purchased this spring.

It’s Bee Season!

back of a beekeeper's car
Some of my favorite days are when the back of my car looks like this!

The season is well underway now. Runamuk’s replacement bees came in several waves: I picked up the first 5 packages on May 12th from Peter Cowin in Hampden, then went back on the 29th for another 5 packages. These will be my honey-producing hives, since the southern bred Italian packages tend to rev up fairly quickly they will ensure that I have honey available to sell and enable me to meet my financial targets.

On June 8th I fetched 3 nucleus colonies from Bob Egan’s Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, Maine. I’d had 5 on order with Bob, but as a result of the harsh winter Bob was low on numbers. Having suffered significant losses myself I couldn’t hold that against the veteran beekeeper─we’re all in this together really. Bob raises a gentle strain of Carnolian bees that I’ve always had good luck with, and whose genetics I want as part of my breeding stock.

The 12 Saskatraz Queens are coming again from Hampden and Peter Cowin. They’ll be mated and ready to start laying when I bring them home the first week of July; the plan is to pair each Queen with 1 frame of brood taken from the existing hives and place them in a nucleus box with 1 frame of empty comb, and at least 1 frame of honey/pollen stores.

I’ll have to manage them fairly fastidiously so that I can overwinter them as nucs, so I’ve delayed pick-up of the new Queens til I can set them up at the new farm where I’ll be able to check on them more frequently. Ultimately, I’d like to have all the nucs and Queen-production happening at the Hive-House, while honey production will continue to happen at Hyl-Tun Farm where the Runamuk hives have miles of prime bee-forage in every direction.

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

The end-goal I have for the Runamuk Apiary is to make the operation sustainable for the long-term viability of my farm. Though I have supporting ventures diversifying Runamuk, bees are the main focus of my farm-business and to truly be successful over the upcoming years I need to reduce inputs and expenses while continuing to expand the apiary.

To do that I need to be able to raise my own Queens and overwinter them as nucleus colonies that can replace the inevitable annual losses. Once I can ensure the continued survival of my own apiary, I can start selling nucs and mated-Queens raised from hardy Maine stock to local beekeepers.

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

When I look back on the journey of my life I can’t help but marvel at the path that’s led me to this place in time. I did not set out to be the person I am today: female farmer, lady beekeeper, blogger, local food activist… I did see myself as becoming some sort of environmental activist however, and really everything I am stems from my love for the Earth and nature.

That love, along with a more recent commitment to be true to who I am and owning my story, has brought me here─doing work I love to do and paying my bills that way, on the precipice of purchasing my very own #foreverfarm and looking forward to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation farm to life.

Yes, beekeeping is hard, and I’ll never be well-off as a farmer, but when I open a hive and the fragrance of warm beeswax and honey washes over me─or when I’m on my knees in the garden surrounded by plants and insects under the bright sun─I am filled with gratitude that I am able to live a life I love─one which brings meaning and purpose to my existence. Now that I’ve tasted this kind of wholehearted living, I could never give it up.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to share any thoughts, questions or comments below!

New pollinator conservation planning services!

bee-habitat-planning

Over the last decade my personal mission in life has slowly evolved into one that is two-fold. One the one hand I’m dedicated to sustainability and all that word encompasses: sustainable energies and industries, sustainable living, sustainable communities─and especially sustainable food systems. On the other hand, and perhaps just a little overzealously─is the part of me which is committed to pollinator conservation.

pollinator-conservation-planningIt’s a commitment to wildlife and nature in general, that drives me. That’s the basis of my principles and the force behind my stubborn pursuit of a sustainable life. I have chosen to devote my life to nature, through stewardship as a farmer and wildlife advocate. By focusing my efforts on a keystone species like pollinators I can do good that benefits the entire ecosystem. And so my life’s other mission is to help bees and other beneficial insects.

That’s right. BUGS.

I like to laugh at myself now, because when I was 14 years old I never would have imagined I’d grow up to be the person I am today.

And yet I’m really excited about this new project. I want to work with home-owners, property managers, and farmers who want to create more bee-friendly habitats wherever they are located.

Enter the Pollinator and Beneficial Insect Conservation Plan.

What is it?

These are site-specific blueprints that identify habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects in your backyard, on your farm, on existing conservation land or other property, and offers recommendations to increase their abundance. I want to come to your property to assess existing habitat and then design a plan tailored to meet your particular goals.

What are the benefits?

bee-habitat-planningBy implementing my recommendations you can increase the available forage and nesting habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Creating habitat for bees creates habitat for other wildlife, and by protecting the flora and fauna in your area you can even help combat climate change.

Farmers and gardeners will see improvement in the pollination of their crops, which results in increased yields. Promoting the abundance of beneficial insects also contributes to natural pest suppression and so reduces the need for pesticide applications.

To learn more about the benefits of a Pollinator & Beneficial Insect Conservation Plan check out our new consulting page which lists all the details regarding this service.

Types of Projects

  • Private land owners: home-owners and farms
  • Residential and resort communities
  • Community centers and faith-based organizations
  • Municipalities
  • Historic farms and gardens
  • Schools, camps, and other educational programs
  • Children’s hospitals, senior centers and other health-based institutions
  • Restaurants, culinary centers and spas

I’m ready!

No matter how large or small the plot you have to work with, there’s something we can all do to help bees, pollinators, and other beneficial insects. I’m ready to help you create your bee-friendly space.

Check out the consultations page for all of the details related to this new service from Runamuk, and if you’re interested drop me a line. If you know anyone who might be interested, please share our contact info with them and help me to help bees!

2016 Year-End Review

runamuk-apiary-bees-on-a-hive

A full rotation of the Earth around the sun has brought us once again to the end of the calendar year. It’s been a busy year for Runamuk, with some ups and some downs too, and some life altering moments. Before we shift our focus to 2017 and all that the new year may bring our way I’d like to take a moment to review what went well this year on our apiary and farm─and what did not.

Personally

paul-smith-runamuk-apiary
It’s a special kindov guy willing to lend a hand in the apiary!

Right out the gate 2016 brought a budding romance with a former CSA-customer of mine, and looking back on it now I suppose that set the tone for the whole year. Paul was eager to live the homesteader’s life, a more self-sufficient life, and an honest life, and he made up his mind pretty quickly that he wanted to do it with me. On the other hand, I was fresh out of one relationship and my divorce still a raw wound so I was fairly cautious about bringing a new person into my life and onto my farm. We decided on a 1-year trial “apprenticeship”, though Paul has been much more than my apprentice from the very start, lol. Over the course of the year we developed a strong partnership, which I’m confident will serve Runamuk well as we continue to grow the apiary together.

Apiary

runamuk-apiary-bees-on-a-hive
Hot bees hanging outside the hive!

In the apiary 4 out of 5 hives survived the winter of 2015-2016. When statistics indicate beekeepers are losing anywhere from 30 to 37% of their hives each winter, to have just a 20% loss was a big victory for Runamuk. I’ve been eager to grow my apiary, with big plans to expand and spent months last winter working on my business plan. It became apparent pretty quickly though that Runamuk just doesn’t have the kind of numbers that financial institutions want to see when they lend money. That’s one of the downsides to bootstrapping your business I guess.

Farming of any kind is a lot of investment up-front and it can take several years before the farmer starts seeing a return. For first generation farmers like me there’s a steep learning curve and the first years in business tend to involve some stumbling as we learn on-the-job. All this is especially true in beekeeping where all of the investment is in the hive-equipment and the gear you need to manage the bees, and where it can take new beekeepers half a decade to really grasp the intricacies of beekeeping today.

So the realities of the business world hit home for me; afterall, farming is a business just like other businesses. If you can’t show that you’re generating a positive income, even the USDA won’t give you money. Sure there are a number of programs to help beginning farmers or female farmers like me, but they still want to see those positive numbers.

And of course, there was the insecurity of my place there at Jim’s farm, when just 9 months after I signed their lease agreement my landlords decided to sell the property. Brief dealings with the Maine Farmland Trust revealed the bias that exists within the Maine agricultural sector, and the realities of business and money reared their ugly heads to create a road-block that ultimately put that farm out of my reach. This was the life altering moment when I chose to walk away, to say goodbye to a property which was, perhaps, the love of my life, in favor of the lifestyle that I need to live in order to be happy. I will never forget that piece of land, or the way it made me feel to be there, the plans I had to bring that iconic farm back to life, and how much I loved it.

new bees 2016
New honeybee colonies come in these starter-hives called “nucleus colonies” or “nucs”.

Despite that set back we managed to bring 10 nucleus colonies to the apiary this year, in addition we made a number of our own nucs by breaking up one of the four hives that survived the winter. I also caught a swarm and successfully hived it. We went into the 2016 winter with 15 colonies, at last check we’d lost 2 so current count is 13.

This was Runamuk’s second year with no honey crop. Last year, following the brutal winter of 2014-2015 when my hives all died, I brought in 5 nucs and took no honey from those new colonies. This year Maine experienced drought conditions that were pretty severe in some parts of our state; as a result the flowers were not producing much nectar and what little honey the bees made I distributed between the hives to ensure their winter survival. Runamuk customers have been asking for honey and while they were all disappointed by our lack of available honey, most were understanding and patient.

runamuk-beeswax-soap
I made a lot of soap this year!!!

I made more soap than ever before this year and even expanded my soap-line to offer new seasonal fragrances that were only available while supplies last, which was a big hit with Runamuk’s dedicated patrons and shoppers at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Increasing our distribution of Runamuk’s beeswax products had been a big goal for 2016; I managed to put together a store on our website, I listed soaps and salves with The Pick-Up in Skowhegan, and North Star Orchards sold my products in their farm-store too.

With my part-time off-the-farm job in addition to the #greatfarmmove, I found it difficult to maintain the pace and to allocate the time required to keep up with the soaps and salves. I couldn’t dedicate the amount of time necessary to photograph each product and write descriptions for online listings, and to top it off problems with the shipping-program we used on the Runamuk site made our online store unattractive to shoppers. We’ve taken the store off the site for maintenance and intend to have it back early in the new year.

Pollinator Conservation

I feel like this was a big year for my efforts to promote pollinator conservation. I only did a couple of small local presentations over the course of the summer: one with the children of the Solon Summer Rec program, one for the robotics team of the homeschool association at the Crossroads Bible Church in Madison, and one presentation for the folks at Johnny’s. But there was my talk at the Common Ground Fair, that was a pretty big achievement─and then the new beneficial-insect symbol in the Johnny’s catalog that I was fortunate to be part of. These successes have spurred something new and exciting coming to Runamuk; you’ll get that news in an up-coming blog-post so stay tuned!

Homestead, Farm & Garden

For years I’ve been working toward an increasingly self-sufficient diet of unprocessed and conscientiously produced foods. This year Paul and I made some big strides together choosing to eat less meat, and more vegetables, grains and legumes. We’re determined to feed ourselves and have been eating a lot of foods we’ve either grown or raised ourselves, foraged for, or purchased/bartered locally from other farmers we know. I still make a weekly shopping list for Hannaford, but I rarely spend more than $35 there, and that’s usually in the form of butter, coffee, and other staples─you know, like toilet paper─or wine.

grow-your-own-shoots
Field pea shoots on the left and buckwheat shoots on the right. Made us some great salads with some DIY vinaigrette to go with it!
fishing for food
Bass caught in the Sandy River, breaded in cornmeal and pan fried, served on a bed of microgreens, with a slice of buttered sourdough bread.

This year, to feed ourselves we grew our own sprouts and shoots, delved into the complexities of sour-dough baking, we foraged for fiddleheads and ramps, Paul went fishing and we harvested so much asparagus from Jim’s garden that we stank when we peed! We were even able to sell some at the farmers’ market. We grew a great crop of early peas and greens; I fell in love with Cherokee lettuce I grew from seed I got at Johnny’s (check this out!). I planted a big and beautiful garden and sowed 80 pounds of seed potato.

Despite my attempt to choke out the weeds with a first-year cover crop of buckwheat, the quack-grass was undeterred, but I was determined. My dedication to weeding faultered however when I realized I was going to let go my love affair with Jim’s farm. The weeds seized their opportunity and quickly took over the garden.

Lack of rain meant we were trying to irrigate the crops, using both the well and the pond. Paul set up a complex series of hoses and sprinklers, soaker-hoses and pumps, but even still it was a challenge to keep the crops moist in the sandy soil that made up the big garden. It took forever for my carrots to germinate, and then they grew so slowly that I forsake them; Paul pulled up a few slender carrots and a number of thumb-sized nubs on moving day.

Onions didn’t want to grow, my squash patch suffered, and though we grew some beautiful tomato plants with manure procured from friends at Willow Lane Farm in Harmony, we experienced an acute case of blossom end-rot that affected nearly the entire crop. We did however manage to get a harvest of early maturing potatoes: our Red Norlands did very well, and we had some Adirondack Blue and strawberry paw potatoes too. I had a third of my garden planted in potatoes, and half of the potato patch was dedicated to Kennebec potatoes for winter storage. Because they’re a late-maturing variety they suffered more from the drought and weed-pressure. I also ran out of time to harvest due to the move.

learning to butcher rabbit
Here I am beginning to skin and gut my first meat-rabbit!

Paul brought bunnies to the farm and I attended a workshop at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison to learn how to process the meat-rabbits when the time comes. I kept a pair of rabbits in the garden for the summer, but never managed to construct the rabbit-tractor I wanted for the other pair of bunnies so I wound up rotating the rabbits between the barn and the one outdoor crate.

This year I finally went to the Maine Artisan Bread Fair that’s been held annually at the Skowhegan Fair Grounds for 10 years now. I brought home the abandoned kitten, and 30 more chicks for egg-production. Later in the fall, with help from Ernie and Gwen Hilton─good friends and dedicated supporters to Runamuk (and me), who live and farm at Hyl-Tun Farm just a mile up the road from where I was at Jim’s there in Starks─we sent 30 birds to freezer-camp: theirs and mine.

Storing the food we’d produced became another issue─especially once we’d made the move from Jim’s big old farmhouse where there was plenty of space, to Paul’s small mobile home. We’re making the best of it and have stashed the freezer full of food, the boxes of potatoes, and the bin of garlic, in the back bedroom as far away from the woodstove as possible, with the pumpkins and squashes lined up along the floor at the base of the wall.

Blog & Writing

Including this post, I’ve written 15 articles on a variety of topics from beekeeping and what kind of plants are good to grow for pollinators, to the broken food system and what resources peeps at Johnny’s Selected Seeds recommend for beginning farmers. I wrote 34 updates chronicling my journey as a beginning farmer and beekeeper here in Maine. This post will round 2016 out with a total of 50 pieces of writing.

Of course the big news regarding the Runamuk blog and my writing is our new relationship with Johnny’s as our blog-sponsor. Hooray for Johnny’s! I’m hoping to be able to bring on several more sponsors in 2017 for the chance to promote some great local─and green─Maine businesses.

Somerset Beekeepers’

Before the divorce my husband worked off-the-farm and supported our household, while I labored in the garden, with the bees or with goats or children (which often are much more difficult than goats OR bees!); I had a lot more time then for volunteer-work. Since the divorce I’ve been working either full or part-time off-the-farm, all while continuing to farm, keep bees, and homestead. Honestly it’s been more of a struggle to keep up with everything these last couple of years. After 5 years serving as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers, our county’s chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association, I finally stepped down. Unfortunately our group had fizzled and we were no longer seeing the attendance we once did. When I stepped down no one else stepped up to lead the group and the Somerset Beekeepers, sadly enough, has disbanded.

That being said, I’ve left myself available to the UME Somerset County Cooperative Extension as a beekeeping liaison of sorts, in the event the community should have need of me. It’s a good thing I did too! Round about August there was a gentleman beekeeper out in Embden who was working with his bees when he was overtaken suddenly by an allergic reaction to the bee stings. He was taken to the emergency room and his hives were left uncovered, the bees exposed to the elements. This gentleman’s daughter called the extension office, who in turn called me; so Paul and I drove over to Embden to close his hives for him.

Madison Farmers’ Market

ebt-at-madison-farmers-market
This was the second year we’ve accepted EBT at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

This was the second year that our local farmers’ market was able to accept EBT transactions from SNAP shoppers. We were able to draw in many new shoppers thanks to our participation in the Maine Harvest Buck’s program. Funding we received from the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets enabled the Madison market to give a dollar-for-dollar bonus to customers who purchased food items using their EBT. So if a SNAP shopper spent $20 at the market they received $20 worth of Harvest Bucks vouchers that could be used at any point throughout the season for the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

In Madison there was a new local food ordinance passed which opened up new opportunities for farmers growing and selling food there. Our market supported this movement, however we’re also cautious of it and have discussed at length how this impacts the market and how we want it to apply to farmers selling food at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Above all else we want to be offering fresh, locally produced food that is safe for our friends, families, and communities to eat; all of Madison’s farmers strive to meet the regulations outlined by the authorities for all of the food and products we sell.

sonia-playing-at-market
Sonia, of Hide & Go Peep Farm plays the fiddle at the Madison Farmers’ Market.

We had a hellova time with the company who processes our transactions at market. Last year we enrolled in the USDA’s flagship program to be able to accept EBT at the market; we received the equipment and first year of processing free in exchange for a 3-yr contract with a company called WorldPay who would process those electronic transactions for us. We were supposed to have a reduced fee this year, and then next year the market would pay the full sum for the service provided.

Regrettably, WorldPay was impossible to work with: I would call to make changes to our account so that the market could receive payment for the transactions we were processing at-market, wait on hold for 40 minutes before finally getting a representative, then I’d jump through hoops trying to get them the paperwork they wanted, but the changes were never implemented. One day I was on the phone all day going back and forth with WorldPay when I should have been outside working my bees. It was a nightmare.

After repeated attempts to resolve the issue we finally opted to cancel our account with WorldPay. We never received payment for any of the transactions processed at-market this season, and I wound up having to pay my farmers for those EBT and credit card sales out of market-funds. The WorldPay fiasco put our farmers’ market more than $500 in the red this year. Currently I’m working to get a new system in place before the start of the 2017 market-season.

It was difficult for me to keep up even with my work for the farmers’ market while I’m working off-the-farm, but after letting go of the Somerset Beekeepers I was all the more determined to hang on to the market. I did my best to prioritize and put the Harvest Bucks program first and foremost in my list of duties, but managing of meetings, recordkeeping, and promotion of the market and special events suffered some this year. Thankfully the farmers that make up our market have all become close friends and they’ve been understanding and supportive over the last 2 years.

Overall the farmers at the Madison Farmers’ Market dubbed the season a success. They were pleased with the increase in traffic we saw as a result of the Harvest Bucks program. We were able to extend our market into December thanks to an alliance with the Somerset Abbey that allows us to be inside every other Sunday from November til Christmas. We’re all looking forward to the new year and the coming season.

Biggest Lessons Learned

  1. Recordkeeping is as crucial to farming as is planting the seed that grows the crop. Get organized and make the time to document your work, your expenses, and your sales (income).
  2. You need good numbers to get any kind of financing or funding─as in positive income. In farming it’s important to have an instant source of income while your long-term crops mature: that’s why many farmers produce annual vegetables when they first start out.
  3. Owning the land you farm on is the most secure option for farmers. Do whatever it takes to make that happen: improve your credit score, look for a lease-to-own option, reduce your expectations and look at ugly-duckling properties which are typically more affordable. Land-insecurity in farming is hugely detrimental to your business, and leases not geared toward agricultural activity can be your downfall.
  4. Business is business. Farming is a business just any other; take it seriously or no one will take you seriously. When it comes to such crucial matters as land-leases that make up the very foundation of your farm, assume nothing─be sure to cover all details and get it in writing before committing.

Closing the Door on 2016

runamuk-laying-hens
More chicks this year to meet the demand for farm-fresh eggs at market.

I feel like this fall, over the course of the encroaching winter, I’ve examined my life and  let go of a lot of old baggage. I’ve closed the door on one chapter and I’m really looking forward to this new phase as I continue to grow my apiary and farm here in Norridgewock with Paul. What you’ve been reading here is just one woman’s story in the pursuit to generate her income through farming─the farming of bees, no less. I am not unique in the obstacles I’ve faced; land-access and lack of capital are 2 of the biggest challenges beginning farmers have to overcome if they are to succeed. Any individual determined to bootstrap their way to success in farming is going to have similar stories, and not all of us will make it. Some will give up.

But I am still here. Bring on 2017!

Success at the Common Ground Fair

honeybee on royal hybrid

Saturday, September 24th, was the day of my big talk over at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine. In the weeks leading up to the fair I’d spent the majority of my time packing, and immediately following the fair I launched into the #greatfarmmove so there really wasn’t time to share the story of that day’s events. However, I know how much you’d appreciate the details of that day’s adventures so we’re going to back-pedal a little bit today.

Talking about bees in central Maine

honeybee on royal hybridI’ve been doing these kinds of presentations since 2012, when I first began teaching a basic beekeeping course as president of the Somerset Beekeepers through the University of Maine’s Somerset County Cooperative Extension in Skowhegan. I frequently accept invitations to speak with various groups or in local classrooms to further promote bees and pollinator conservation in the central Maine area. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but the Common Ground Fair was a big step up from my local scene here in central Maine and I fully admit that I was both excited and frightened by the prospect of speaking at the Common Ground Fair.

Friends and co-workers were all supportive and reassuring, so I mustered some courage and plowed onward. I revamped one of my favorite power point presentations, dubbed it “Pollinator Conservation Through Agriculture” and offered up the information to colleagues at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in a dry-run. The presentation was well received, and after some final tweaking I was satisfied with my power point slide show.

One small hitch

Then─just days before my talk─I learned that I would not have access to a projector at the fair, which meant no power point presentation. Keep in mind that public speaking is not a gift that I was born with; it’s a skill that I have had to work at and with every presentation I get a little better at it. To overcome the natural anxiety that comes with opening oneself up in front of a group of strangers I have developed a number of tools to help me through and my power points with their high definition pictures, and their organized and bulleted lists of information are my primary instrument. Imagine the anxiety and the panic that flooded through me when I realized I would not have that resource!

Meanwhile, Amy over at Johnny’s had been busy making copies of a whole sheaf of handouts for me, including resources from the Xerces Society about how to minimize the risk of pesticides to pollinators, how to make nests for native bees, managing roadsides for bees and butterflies, and a full-color chart from the Michigan State University that displayed native plants that offer food and habitat for beneficial insects over the course of the entire growing season. All of these were loaded into a cardboard box that was just large and heavy enough to be awkward.

Yet another bump in the road

My slide show I decided to print onto cardstock─2 slides per page so that I could cut them in half and have large 5×7 cards, with easy-to-read text. Wouldn’t you know it, there I am on Friday afternoon─the day before my big talk─half-way through printing that carefully crafted slide-show and my printer runs out of ink!

I didn’t panic though; since the Call Center and offices are located in Fairfield, which is along the route to the Common Ground Fair, I just decided to stop by Johnny’s to print the rest of the slides. Potential catastrophe averted! Yay!

Once I had my cards with all of my notes and pictures I plugged “the Common Ground Fair” into my phone’s GPS and set out towards Unity with a mixture of anxiety and excitement pumping through my veins.

Meeting Eliot Coleman

I arrived at the fair early to check out the goings-ons, sat in on a talk called “What’s going on in the Maine Woods” given by a representative from the group RESTORE, and then loitered for a bit at the 2 different Johnny’s tents chatting with colleagues. It was during this period that I chanced to meet THE one and only Elliot Coleman of 4 Season Farm here in Maine and renown author of The New Organic Grower which has inspired countless new farmers and gardeners.

Working part-time in the Call Center at Johnny’s Seeds I’ve actually spoken with Eliot a couple of times on the phone and so I impulsively introduced myself and told him so, taking the opportunity to shake the man’s hand. Eliot was at the fair that day to give a talk in tandem with Adam Lemieux, Johnny’s official “tool-dude”, and we launched into a brief conversation─about bees of course─and the impact this beekeeper has had on Johnny’s. I hope next time I chance to catch Eliot on the phone he remembers who I am!

Standing room only!

At long last it was time for my presentation in the Railcar Speakers’ Tent and I trucked over with my notecards, bottles of water, and my box of professional-looking handouts. It was a little disconcerting to find the tent packed! When I’d sat in on the talk offered by the gentleman from the RESTORE group there had been a total of four of us sitting in the little canvas tent. That was not the case for my pollinators talk! Every chair was occupied and more folks stood at the back and off to the side to hear what I had to say!

Don’t get me wrong─I’m not so brazen as to think that all of these people came out to see li’l ol’ me. I know that they saw that I am affiliated with Johnny’s and that lent some credence to this obscure beekeeper from backwoods Maine. Yet, the fact that all of these people took time out of their day to learn more about how they can help pollinators at home, in their gardens, or on their farms tells me that there is a movement underway.

I am a Pollinator Conservationist

As I drove home that afternoon I couldn’t help feeling an immense sense of accomplishment and gratitude to have come so far. I think it’s safe to call myself a “pollinator conservationist“. I’m proud to be on the front lines of an environmental issue that touches almost all other environmental issues, for as a keystone species pollinators have a broad-spectrum impact on just about every ecosystem that exists upon this planet. Without pollinators 80% of flowering plants would not be able to reproduce; our world would be a very different place indeed.

People are becoming more and more aware of the plight facing bees and pollinators and they actually care. Whether out of concern for themselves, worried about the security of our food-systems which depend upon pollination services provided by animals and insects, or whether it’s for the love and beauty of nature─people sincerely want to take action and do what they can to help pollinators and save bees. That people care enough to do something about it is profoundly inspiring, and hugely motivating to me. You can be sure I will continue putting myself out there, sharing what I know in an effort to teach the public how they can help bees and pollinators RIGHT NOW.

Thanks for following along with my journey! Stay tuned, there are more adventures to come!

Friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

johnnys selected seeds

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

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

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

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

Friends at Johnny’s

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

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

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

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

A little more about Johnny’s Selected Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Johnny’s Series

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

Here’s what I asked:

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

Cultivating friendships

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

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

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

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

Bee-school crash course

basic beekeeping crash course

basic beekeeping course

I’ll be at the Somerset County Cooperative Extension in Skowhegan this Saturday giving my annual bee-school. This will be my 5th year teaching the course as president of the Somerset Beekeepers and I’m looking forward to spending a day talking with folks about bees.

It’s lots of fun helping prospective new beekeepers to learn how to get started with their own hives. Normally I do this course over a series of weeks, but this year I am crazy-busy, so I opted for a day-long workshop that I’ve laughingly deemed my “bee-school crash course”.

There’s still space available in this class, so if you or someone you know is interested in joining us on Saturday feel free to share this information with them and have them get in touch with me to sign up. It’s sure to bee a buzzing good time!

Saying farewell to North Star Orchards

At North Star Orchards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I learned:

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

judy dimock
Judy Dimock

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

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

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

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

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

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

One random act of kindness

random act of kindness

Some people may not have much faith left in society and their fellow man-kind, but I certainly do. I’ve seen it demonstrated to me personally time and time again, and every act of kindness fills me with warmth and love and gratitude, and lends me the strength to go another day. I’ve had help along my journey, and people continue to help me. Sometimes I do ask for help, if somewhat reluctantly─hey, I got my pride too! but in all seriousness, I know when to ask for help and so I will…if I have to. But sometimes I don’t ask for anything at all and I am surprised with a generous act of kindness bestowed upon me.

This is the story of one such random act of kindness.

random act of kindnessI have some issues with my feet. I’m flat-footed, and while I was in basic training for the Army─back when I was fresh out of high school─I broke not one-but several of the bones in my right foot. I was put in a cast and discharged from the military with an uncharacterized discharge. The bones healed and the cast was removed and I continued on with my eighteen-year old life. But the foot was never the same; when I waitressed (that’s what I did at that point in my life) long days or nights that foot and ankle would get so sore! Once I finally sat and relaxed at the end of the day the tendons in my foot seemed to seize up and I couldn’t walk without limping, and I wasn’t even 20.

That went on for years and because the left foot was continuously trying to compensate for my bad right foot, I developed some soreness in the left ankle as well. It always seemed to be worse in the springtime, after a long lazy winter when all of a sudden I was outside raring to go again: gardening, digging, planting and pruning…and at the end of the day I’d be satisfied from my labors, but sore and limping once more.

Over the years I eventually learned that staying active in the first place really helped to keep the muscles in my feet strong. Practicing yoga helped to work out the tendons in my feet and legs too; but good footgear really has been the key to saving my poor little hardworking feet.

Even still, knowing that I needed sturdy footgear with arch support that could take the wear and tear of a farming lifestyle, I’ve never spent more than $25 to $50 on shoes. I own a total of 2 pairs: a pair of lightweight sneakers and a pair of hiking boots. I paid $3 apiece for them at the St. Sebastian thrift store in Madison.

The hiking boots see much more use, and it showed in their condition; the soles were coming apart from the rest of the shoe, there were holes where the seams were giving way, and somehow my feet had begun to swim inside them. It was time for a new pair of boots.

So I went into Reny’s and for the first time EVER in my life I picked out a pair of footgear that was priced over $100; these were quality Timberland waterproof leather hiking boots and I went and put them on layaway there. I was pleased as punch with myself for making such a commitment to─well to myself. Afterall, how can I get all the hard work of farming done if I don’t take care of myself, and your feet are a pretty important part of the body for accomplishing most labors, lol.

I dutifully went in every week after getting paid by the orchard, and put another $20 on the layaway balance.

But these last few weeks with the added expense of heating this big old farmhouse, and now living and farming on just one income, I’d been struggling to pay even a small amount on the layaway. The balance remained at $64.44 and my boots remained in the basement at Reny’s…

Then out of the blue yesterday I received a call from Barbara at Reny’s. At first I was afraid that she was going to tell me that my payment was overdue and that I was at risk of losing my boots! but instead Barbara said that a certain “Santa Claus” had come in and paid the remaining balance on my layaway. I could pick up the boots anytime.

Can you believe it! Some blessed guardian angel paid the $64.44 so that I could have my new boots!

farming bootsOnly a handful of people knew about these boots and the layaway, so I have my suspicions as to who it could have been. And to that person I say thank you so much, from the bottom of my humble heart. Thank you.

That is the story of how one random act of kindness affected me. And that’s just one example─I have other stories of how people have generously helped me out along the way. I only hope that I am deserving enough of their good opinion of me.

If you watch the news or even the facebook newsfeed, there’s a lot of negativity out there in the big wide world. It’s easy to focus on the bad events, horrific shootings, bombings and war, drug abuse and crime. Even in our day to day, mundane lives, it’s easy to focus on the negative, when we really have so much to be thankful for, and little random acts of kindness like this one happen every day, all over the country, and all over the world. I’ve seen it. lived it. and on more than one occasion.

It’s random acts of kindness like this one that lend me to believe that most people are good at heart. This is why I still have faith in society. And why I do what I do─for the Somerset Beekeepers, the Madison Farmers’ Market, and as a farmer and environmentalist. Kind actions and generous hearts spur me on and encourage me to share the love and hope that I feel in my own soul.

new boots

This week I was able to wrangle heating oil and firewood to keep the pipes from freezing and to keep me warm too. I was able to pay my car payment (only 3 left now!), and I am eager to be going back to the Somerset Abby this Sunday for another of our Farmers’ & Artisan’s Winter Market. I’m thankful just to be alive, to be here on this farm, and to have the opportunity to make the most of every day.

And I am especially grateful today for my new boots. They fit my feet like a glove! I picked them up after work today, before returning home to the farm; Murphy and I can scarcely wait to take a walk this weekend down through the pastures!

Bee-school with SAD 54 adult ed

adult education center

adult education centerYesterday marked the start of the fall session of my bee-school. I loaded my laptop, and a variety of beekeeping gear and equipment into the back of my Subaru Outback and drove to Skowhegan and to it’s high school where I was scheduled to teach more than 20 peoples about the basics of beekeeping here in Maine.

Back in July I was approached by the SAD 54 Adult Education program about teaching a fall beekeeper’s course for them. At the time I was swamped and couldn’t really fathom the idea of fitting the course into my schedule, but I was flattered to be asked, and I’ve been asked a number of times over the last 2 or 3 years about a fall bee-school so I decided this was the year and I brazenly said yes.

This is my 6th year as a beekeeper, my 5th year serving as president of the Somerset Beekeepers, and my 4th year teaching beekeepers─however this is my 1st experience with a school district. The Somerset Beekeepers congregates at the Somerset County Cooperative Extension; I have a very good relationship with the folks there and so I’ve held my bee-schools there every February for the last 4 years.

It turns out I have quite a knack for gathering and organizing information. That’s not surprising really for someone who relished research reports and essays in school, who likes to write and has had experience homeschooling I suppose. I’ve put together my own bee-school curriculum covering the basic topics for new beekeepers: facts about bees, equipment & gear, establishing new hives, seasonal management, honey production, pests & diseases and IPM, etc. And I try to present the information using multiple learning modalities: printed information in handouts and power-point, visual info─also in handouts and in the form of pictures and graphics included in the power-point, hands-on demonstration pieces and when possible projects that allow participants to take part and get their hands involved.

All that sounds good and I guess I’ve done a fair job of it, but I’m still nervous standing as the voice of authority in front of a group. I’ve gotten a lot better since the first bee-school I ever did, but last night was something of an ordeal.

I managed to remember almost all of my gear and equipment. I found a whole host of handouts that I wanted to share with my prospective new beekeepers. And I was on the road headed for Skowhegan at a reasonable time. Yay me!

The staff in the Adult Education Center there at the Skowhegan High School were very nice and set about making copies of all my handouts. They have a fabulous copy machine that copies the handouts front and back and staples them together for you too! You can put in a sheaf of 5 different pages and it will print 20-something sets of them for you. The only problem is that it’s a painstaking process and the machine is slow.

While I waited for the handouts to be ready I went in search of my classroom: “Orange-10”. It felt like something of an expedition trekking the 200-yards down one corridor, then turning right and hiking another 100-yards through the school, but I eventually found my classroom and set my bag and laptop off there before turning around to make my way all the way back and out into the parking lot to unload my gear and equipment.

I wasn’t looking forward to making several of those trips with the hive pieces and my tool box, but luckily a number of my eager bee-pupils were in the parking lot as I opened the back of my car and they each offered to carry something in with them. I had a whole procession of people carrying equipment as I led the way back through the school to Orange-10, I imagine it might have been a rather humorous sight.

Once the equipment was in the classroom I left the students to “settle in” and I went all the way back to the office once more for the handouts and to ask about a projector for my laptop and power point presentation.

After a conversation with the ladies in the office about how to hook my computer up to the school’s projector and a promise from Vivian, the adult education coordinator there, to bring the remaining handouts (which were still printing slowly but steadily) down and to check on me (for which I was relieved and grateful), I finally made it back to the classroom where my bee-students were waiting patiently. The classroom was small and very warm, and stuffy. I was hot and flustered from having made so many trips back and forth from my classroom to the office and the parking lot, and attempted to hook my laptop up to their system but quickly realized that none of their cords or cables looked familiar. I was confused and decided we would just have to wait for Vivian.

In the meanwhile I had 21 pairs of eyes on me and suddenly my entire plan was shot. I’ve developed a rhythm over the last 4 years teaching this program, and it always begins with a power-point presentation “About Bees”. Instead I began talking about equipment, tools and gear and, still being hot and flustered, stumbled a bit in my presentation.

Eventually Vivian came down with the handouts and we quickly discovered that my beat up old laptop (it’s only 3 years old, but my kids have done quite a number on the thing) doesn’t have the right port for the cable they use for the projector that’s installed in the classroom. The school has other projectors, but it would take a while to track it down, pull it out and set it up, so I wouldn’t have it til the next class.

So no power point.

I wound up just talking my way through the presentation. There were a few pictures that I insisted my student needed to see: pictures of bee eggs, larvae, drones and the Queen, for example. and so I would walk up and down between the rows of desks with the laptop for each person to see exactly what I was talking about. And when I say that my laptop is beat up, I mean that one of the hinges that attaches the screen to the keyboard has broken and so my screen hangs ajar somewhat, and doesn’t always like to stand upright. I felt rather ridiculous parading the thing around in front of everyone, but it is what it is.

Somewhere in all this I remembered to take attendance and we got all of the handouts sorted and passed out. The copy-machine in the office may be a wonder of modern technology, but the sheaf of various handouts was in no particular order and once again I was confused and discombobulated.

Nevertheless we managed to get through the topics I wanted to cover in our first session, and I answered their questions as best I could. I always tell folks up front that I don’t claim to know it all. I’ve learned a lot in my 6 years as a beekeeper, but I know I still have a lot to learn.

Despite the confusion and disarray, the bee-students seemed happy with their first class. They brushed off the mishaps and said they were looking forward to next week. One gentleman who has been keeping bees for a year already, and has taken some of Lincoln Sennet’s workshops at Swan’s over in Albion, said that Lincoln’s classes are very good, but that he’d already learned some things from me that he hadn’t picked up from Lincoln. That was definitely a relief to hear, and a nice encouragement after the shenanigans of the evening. Hopefully next week’s class goes more smoothly!