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

usda_somerset county
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!

Approved!

swinging bridge farm

Yesterday I received the news I have worked long and hard for. Nathan contacted me from Maine’s Pensobscot County Farm Service Agency to say that my loan request was approved by the state’s Farm Loan Manager. I can scarcely believe it!

Honestly I hadn’t expected to hear anything until later next week, so it came as quite a surprise when the email came through with the Notification of Loan Approval attached. I had to read Nathan’s words twice through, not daring to believe it at first lest I’d read it wrong, and even then I had to open the file and read the document entirely before I could accept that it was really real: my loan request has been approved! I’m buying the Swinging Bridge Farm!

At first I was so stunned that I was shaking. I couldn’t sit down, I had to stand up. I hugged Paul repeatedly, danced with Murphy, and bounced up and down; I was laughing and crying at the same time. After years of working toward this goal─to buy a property that would serve as my forever-farm home and become the pollinator conservation farm that I have envisioned since I began working with bees nearly 8 years ago─all of the struggle has finally been rewarded. I’m buying a farm!!!

Indeed, the FSA’s monstrous loan application and drawn out process has felt very much akin to a college final exam, upon which my degree depends upon. I did not attend college and am largely self-taught, but I feel I’ve earned that degree─or the equivalent of it─in the form of this loan approval. Did I mention I’m buying a farm???

We won’t actually close on the purchase for months, however. The FSA’s grueling process dictates that an appraisal of the property be done by an outside operative, which means the government offers the job to real estate appraisors across the state. The appraisors have something like 45 days to bid on the job, and once someone has been selected that person then has another 3 weeks or so to get the job done and turn in their report to the FSA.

They do this to ensure that the government isn’t paying too much for the property. The FSA won’t pay more than the value of the property, as these loans are funded with tax-payer money. This could mean that I might have to re-negotiate with the Seller if the FSA’s appraisal comes in lower than our current Sale Agreement, and that can sometimes be a sticking point. However, I’m fairly confident that I’m getting the Swinging Bridge Farm for a good price, and if the appraisal should come in lower than the $174,500 I’ve committed to, I have faith that the Seller will work with me to make my dream of farm-ownership come true.

In addition to the appraisal I need to have a number of inspections done on the house, including the chimney, electrical, plumbing and septic, and a water test. These I’ll have to pay for out of my own pocket before closing, but it makes good sense to have these things looked at to ensure the safety of not only my business, but my family as well.

swinging bridge farmTitle research needs to be done, and I need to have insurance in place before closing too. I’m pleased as punch that Ernie Hilton has agreed to do the legal work on this for me. Ernie and Gwen Hilton have supported my ambitions with Runamuk for years. My most valuable apiary is located on their farm in Starks, where bee-forage is prime and allows me to produce high quality honey. More recently the Hiltons hosted my FarmRaiser party in their historic barn. It seems fitting that Ernie should be the one to help me seal the deal on this farm-purchase.

We’re probably looking at closing (I’m estimating based on the information I’ve gleaned from Nathan during this whole process) in the late winter or early spring. I’m going to wager that it will be sometime around the Vernal Equinox─the first day of spring: March 20th. After that I’ll hold off on the “Great Farm Move: the Final Chapter” until after mud season. The house at the Swinging Bridge Farm is coming to me fully furnished, so I’ll use the time in between to organize the place, sort through the existing “stuff”, and define spaces and work stations within the house, the attached shed and barn, for Runamuk and for my family.

But there’s also the chance that we may not close til June. It all depends how how smoothly things progress. Whatever the wait, I know I have something to look forward to at the end of this road.

After living in tight quarters for the last year, with a full-sized bed in what should be the family room, my 2 boys sharing a room, and Runamuk crammed in around us─it will be a huge blessing, and a big advantage to have designated spaces once again. While I support the concept of tiny-homes, with my operation requiring accommodations for various oils, soap curing, product packaging, honey storage, farmers’ market supplies and writing materials─it’s challenging to fit it into a small space and coexist. My boys will value having their own rooms once more, and Runamuk will have the space it requires to thrive and grow.

OMG I’m buying a farm!!!

Join me in offering thanks to the Universe; new beginnings are on the horizon! Subscribe by email to the Runamuk blog for the latest updates on my farming-journey directly in your in-box!

FarmRaiser Party! Beekeeping, dinner & music!

barn party

Come to the Runamuk apiary on October 1st for a crash course in beekeeping and stay for dinner and live music at the historic Hilton barn in Starks! As part of the Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm gofundme campaign, I’ve organized this 2-part event that I’m really excited to share.

Beekeeping 101

beekeeping 101Sign up early to participate in my Beekeeping 101 workshop which begins at 9am on Sunday, October 1st. The course will cover the basics of getting started with bees in Maine, including where to get bees, apiary location, how to set up your equipment, installing the bees, pests & diseases, and overwintering your bees─among other things. Weather and temperatures permitting we may crack open a hive for some hands-on experience.

I have permission to use the Hilton’s barn for this event, so the workshop will take place rain or shine. Coffee, tea, and refreshments will be provided, but participants should bring a bag lunch of their own.  This is a 5 or 6 hour course and participants will take a beekeeping guide book home with them and numerous handouts.

The course is one of the perks I’m offering in the upcoming Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign with a $150 donation, however I’m offering a 11% discount on Early Bird registration RIGHT NOW. Sign up to participate for just $75!!! You may have two adult members from the same household for this price, requires confirmation of address and a book is shared.




FarmRaiser Party!

Runamuk’s supporters, friends and family are all invited to come to the Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks for a pot-luck dinner and live music! From 5-8 join us in the historic Hilton barn for the Runamuk FarmRaiser Party and celebrate with me all that Runamuk has achieved thus far, and all that we will attain in the future. A celebration of life, love, and community that you won’t want to miss.

farmraiser flyerI’m hoping to have a contradance, but I’m still working to nail that down. At the very least I know we will have some great live music, plenty good food, adult beverages (as well as family-friendly drinks of course), good company and a great setting. It’s sure to be a good time for the whole family.

VIP Passes: Here’s another great campaign perk I’m revealing early: VIP Passes to the Runamuk FarmRaiser Party! Except in this case, VIP stand for Very Important Pollinator. VIP guests will be seated at an exclusive table and served by yours truly, plied with wine or beer or whatever your beverage of choice is, and honored as revered supporters to the Runamuk cause. Receive a tour of the apiary, the Hilton’s conservation pasture, and gain exclusive “backstage access” to the evening’s musicians. These VIP Passes won’t be available until the campaign goes live, but a pair of passes can be yours with a $250 donation. Come be my guest, let me shower you with love and appreciation!!!

On-Going Campaign Prep

As you can see, I’ve been busy preparing for the upcoming crowdfunding campaign. I’ve put together what I think are some great gifts to give in exchange for donations, I’ve got a list of online promotion and another of offline promotion to work through, a video still to make, and the actual campaign launching on September 1st. And all this in addition to my regularly scheduled duties. Yes it’s hectic, but I’m confident it will all be worth it in the end.

I’ve put together a jam-packed campaign Media Kit that includes the official press release for the campaign, a full-length article, campaign highlights, social media images, flyers, and high res images. Anyone interested in helping to promote the Runamuk FarmRaiser can access the Media Kit by emailing me directly. Aslo feel free to email me for collaboration; I welcome any and all support!

Already I’ve been passing out flyers at the farmers’ market, posting them about the local community, and sharing the news of the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign─and our upcoming party! I’m really excited; however much we raise is going to be a help when we finally go to the FSA next March to begin the long process for financing our forever-farm home. I’m just glad I get to share the journey with so many wonderful friends.

Thanks for following along! Stay tuned for more from Runamuk!

What’s next for Runamuk?

paul-smith-runamuk-apiary

It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the idea of walking away from Jim’s farm, and I fully admit that some days it’s still a struggle to accept defeat. As a beginning farmer, it’s already been a long journey with many twists and turns in the road, obstacles overcome and fears faced along the way, and this wayward traveler is weary. This farmer is ready to put down roots to begin the hard work of building a forever-farm, and these false-starts are discouraging.

Leaving Jim’s is not the end for Runamuk, I know this and I’m confident that I will persevere, but I am no longer confident in leasing land. Farms are different from other businesses in that they invest their money and time into the land itself. Farmers give their heart and soul to a piece of land, to see it flourish and provide a bounty. It can take years of soil-building, cultivating, reseeding pastures, managing forests, and nurturing the land to see a return on investments. Beginning farmers need long-term land-security in order to make the kinds of investments needed to be able to generate a stable income from the land.

So what comes next?

runamuk apiaryAs partners in business and in life, Paul and I have pooled resources. He happens to have a parcel of land on the Norridgewock side of Ward Hill that he bought from family several years ago. This property came with a older mobile home on-site that Paul gutted and he spent a great deal of time during his bachelorhood reinforcing it’s structure, replacing insulation and redoing electrical wiring (isn’t he handy!?).

We plan to use his property as a stepping-stone as we get finances in order and continue to grow the apiary. Half the apiary will remain at the Hyl-Tun Farm, which allows our production hives access to the superior forage the vast hay-fields of Starks offers, while the other half, along with the rest of the Runamuk operation and our household will move to Paul’s place.

It ain’t gonna be pretty, folks.

Nothing about this property screams “farm” or envokes an image of “conservation agriculture”. The trees and brambles have grown up over the hills and gullies, the soil is sandy and lacking structure and nutrients. The housing is not what one would picture for any type of farmstead and the neighbors are a little too close for comfort.

But it is a place where we can land the bees and the chickens, where there will be a roof over our heads and a woodstove to huddle beside during the cold winter months. Best of all─Paul’s place will allow us keep our living expenses low so that we can pay down debts, optimize credit scores, and save money for a deposit on our future forever-farmland.

How are we going to make it happen?

After my dealings with Farm Credit East and the FSA I realize now that a business loan is not an option for Runamuk. It’s going to be another 3-4 years before the Runamuk Apiary begins earning a positive income. Currently large investments made into bees and apiary equipment give us a negative balance on the farm’s income taxes. Our off-farm employment, along with the sales from eggs and beeswax products keep Runamuk afloat, but because of the nature of farming with bees and the time involved in building an apiary I have not been able to improve upon that balance that lenders look at when considering financing an operation.

However rough and rustic Paul’s place may be, it will allow us to live much more cheaply and we will be able to squirrel money away to put towards a down payment on Runamuk’s forever-farmland. Sometime in the next couple of years we’ll run a crowdfunded campaign to raise even more funds to add to our nest-egg for the down-payment and to help cover any fees associated with the sale of the property.

We’ll research the opportunities that various local banking institutions offer and get pre-approved for a personal loan, and then we’ll begin our search in earnest. All options from “lease-to-own” and “for-sale-by-owner” to properties listed with real estate agents will be considered. Paul and I intend to take our time searching for our ideal property.

Once the purchase is finalized, we’ll put a camper on the land and live there seasonally as we develop the property. Winters we will spend in Norridgewock living frugally so that we can continue to invest in our business.

In the meanwhile….

At the moment everything is focused on getting through this move, which will occur towards the end of September. Paul is trying to make the old mobile home livable for us─it had always been more of a learning project for him before, rather than something he intended to actually live in; now he needs to finish the wiring, hook up the plumbing, and install a kitchen sink before we can purchase appliances and begin moving in.

After the transition we will lay out a budget together and then spend the winter working on plans for the apiary. We’re both keen to model our methods after Kirk Webster’s treatment-free apiary, and to build up the Runamuk apiary quickly while still being able to produce at least some honey as we grow. How much we can expand the apiary next year will depend on how many of our current hives make it through the winter, so we’re maintaining careful diligence with the hives right now.

There will only be a small raised bed for gardening next year, so I’ve decided to participate in the CSA program offered by my friends at Sidehill Farm in Madison who also sell their produce at the local Madison Farmers’ Market. Lack of space won’t stop us from growing our own microgreens and sprouts however, and we fully intend to continue making our own bread and cooking as much of our own food as possible in order to keep processed foods out of our diet.

runamuk apiary maineRemaining close to nature

I was asked recently what it was I really wanted─for my farm, for my life─and my answer to the person that asked the question was one that has stuck with me: I want to be close to nature. More than anything else, I always want to be close to nature and to the Earth. I know that so long as I focus on that, so long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other, Runamuk will persevere and so will I.

Stay tuned folks, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!

Moving beehives

The sky was just beginning to lighten Saturday morning as I went out to the apiary with scissors and a wet sponge. The bees were not yet active so it was an ideal time to close up hives in preparation for moving.

Getting hives ready to moveI manage a few hives for Ernie and Gwen Hilton of Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks; just as mine had perished in the brutal winter of 2014-2015, so did the Hilton’s. Over the last 2 years I’ve built up both my hives and those of Hyl-Tun Farm─keeping the nucleus colonies at Runamuk so that I could closely monitor their progress. Now the Hilton’s hives are full-fledged and looking strong and Ernie and I arranged to move them back to Hyl-Tun Farm, which happens to be just a mile up the road from Runamuk’s current location.

How do you move beehives? you might wonder, lol.

I’m no migratory beekeeper and I really prefer not to move hives around too much just because it stresses them and it’s a bit of a hassle, but I’ve done it enough times to know what to expect.

materials for plugging hives for moving

 

I used a new sponge I’d whetted, and simply cut squares off to fit the varying sizes of the hive entrances on each of the Hilton’s 3 hives─bottom and top entrances, as well as any auger holes or any holes the bees are using to come and go from.

plugging hive entrancesThen I used wratchet-straps to bind all of the boxes, their bottom boards and top covers together so that nothing would slide apart during the move. And they were ready to travel!

Hives on the truckSince these hives are too tall to fit easily into my Subaru wagon, Ernie brought his truck over and we hefted each hive and loaded them one by one into it. Then we drove the mile down the road to Hyl-Tun Farm.

hives on the moveWe’d moved the apiary location at Hyl-Tun Farm to make it easier for me to access the hives without having to trek through their fenced pastures, and I picked a spot up on a knoll against the hedgerow that divides two pastures. This spot receives full sun up til the very tail end of the day, offers a natural wind-break, allows for south-facing placement of the hives, and is dry. These colonies will have access to the acres and acres of clover, grasses, and other forage available in the Hilton’s pastures.

hives at hyl-tunSince the Hilton’s apiary site is only about a mile from the Runamuk apiary we were a little concerned that the field bees might return to the former site. The lone hive remaining on that particular bench is a little weaker so any field bees returning there will hopefully join that colony and help to strengthen it. However, to minimize population loss in the Hilton’s hives I tried to create some kind of blockage infront of the entrances. Some of our research indicated that this might help, so I used what was readily available─brush and branches from the hedgerow─and stood them up in the cement blocks that support the hive-bench.

It’s been 2 days since the move so I stopped in at the Hyl-Tun apiary this morning on my way to work to remove the sticks and branches. So far everyone looks great and the Hilton’s are happy to have the bees back on the premises. Yay bees!

Freeze-your-face-off COLD!

cold weather warningIt was seriously cold this morning as I made my way across the road to the barn. I honestly worried that I was going to freeze my face off (okay so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much!). It’s a familiar story on any farm across Maine this today. Morning chores in the frigid and windy temperatures, breath whipped away by the wind, toes cold inside boots despite the layers of socks, and fingertips numb with the biting cold inside gloves or mittens.

The National Weather Service has issued a Wind Chill Warning through 10am this morning. It was -11° with a wind chill of -28°. I’ve made my birds as comfortable as possible─their coops are in a draft-free corner of the barn─with a heat lamp, and I rotate bowls and buckets in order to keep dishes thawed and water available at all times. In just a couple of weeks I will begin a lighting regimen and soon those chicks I bought last September (now nearly 5 months old) will begin laying eggs for the upcoming 2016 season. And they are looking very fine indeed!

carting waterCurrently Runamuk is home to about 40 chickens and a handful of turkeys, 5 beehives, 2 cats and 1 dog. That’s a very modest menagerie, but I take pride in the process of feeding and caring for the animals. It’s humbling to put the needs of the animals and the farm before my own comfort. I am just a steward, caring for this farm and the landscape it encompasses. I work hard to care for the animals, the house, and the land, and in turn the farm supports me (at least I hope it will someday).

The cats have scarcely set foot outside the farmhouse since the first snowflakes covered the ground. I tell them every time I feed them that they’re freeloaders and they’d better start pulling their weight else it’ll be reduced rations for them! But Murphy has been a champ, follows me about the farm, across the road to feed and water the birds in the barn, snowshoeing down through the fields or lounging nearby as I plug away at Runamuk’s business plan sitting at a desk in the office.

It’s the bees I worry about most. It’s been just over 2 weeks since my last hive-check (January’s hive-checks revealed 5 of 5 hives still alive and going strong, though low on stores), and it will be at least another 2 weeks before I open the hives again. If we get a warm-up I will make my way across the road to the apiary to see if any bees are flying and that will give me an idea of who’s alive and who’s not, but aside from that there’s nothing more I can do for the bees until spring.

This is going to be a big year for Runamuk, I’m making a big investment into 10 more hives, I’ve taken on an apprentice to help share the workload and I’m planning to grow and preserve more food than ever before in hopes of sustaining this farmer throughout the year with greater independence and self-sufficiency.

Looking on the brightside, the recent snow combined with this gawd-awful cold has created a great snow-pack for Runamuk’s upcoming Winterfest. If you’re in the area, bring the kids and the sleds next Saturday to join in some wintery shenanigans!

Winterfest at Runamuk!

sledding fun

WinterfestAnnouncing Winterfest! A celebration of the winter season and the joys that can be found even in the depths of winter. I’m excited to host what I hope is the first of many annual winter festivals here at Runamuk.

sledding funOn Saturday, February 20th from 11am to 2pm Runamuk Acres Farm & Apiary in Starks will be open to the public for family-friendly winter fun. Friends and family are invited to dress warmly and bring the kids along with their own sleds or snow-tubes to try the hills here on the farm, share hot cocoa around a warm outdoor fire, and nibble some cookies.

tubingI’m a big believer in the need for people to get out of doors and connect with nature, to breathe the fresh Maine air and for kids of all ages to do something active. The hills that make up the landscape at Runamuk are perfect for sledding─there are gentler slopes out behind the old farmhouse that are great for the wee-ones, and behind the barn there is a stupendous steep hill for a more intense sledding adventure. The plan is to have friends from the farmers’ market here with snowmobiles to help pull sledders back up the hills. It should be a cranking good time!

I have a number of bee-schools, workshops and events planned at Runamuk for the 2016 season; view them by clicking on the Workshops link in the top menu to view dates!