Farming as a Way Forward for Maine’s Economically Depressed Regions

dharma farm

Not too long ago I attended a town meeting in Madison in which I told selectmen that I see farming as a way forward for our economically depressed region of Maine. A new zoning ordinance had been passed in Madison that affects agriculture in my hometown, and I was there in official capacity as a representative of the Madison Farmers’ Market. It is my hope that people will see the rationale of this concept. We can revitalize our rural economies through agriculture. Farming IS a viable way forward; I truly believe this.

dharma farm
Jeff Knox of Dharma Farm in Washington, ME. Photo credit: Dharma Farm. Find them online today!

Even in the midst of the local foods movement, it’s difficult to persuade the mainstream public that farming is a viable option for regional growth, and I doubt my words bore much weight with Madison’s Board of Selectmen. For far too long society has viewed farming as work that any simpleton can do; work that involves long hours of toil and drudgery, and results in little pay and a low-quality of life. Farming has not been a career choice parents generally wanted for their children. I’m taking this opportunity to present 7 reasons why I believe in farming as the way forward for Maine’s economically depressed regions.

1. Support Local Economies

Supporting family farms and local community food systems is a powerful strategy for jumpstarting our fragile economy and strengthening communities across America. Agriculture is a frequently overlooked source of economic development and job creation.

The economic impact of the nation’s food producers stretch far beyond the limits of their farms and ranches. Food systems link farmers with other enterprises, from input providers for seed and fertilizers, to retail chains, restaurants and everything in between. Every year consumers spend over $1 trillion on food grown by US farmers and ranchers, yet the real value of agriculture to the nation lies much deeper.

Farmers are the backbone of our nation, the first rung on the economic ladder; studies show that when farms thrive, Main Street businesses and local communities thrive too. Consider farming as a way forward.

2. Cultivate Food Security

farming as a way forward
Harvest-time at Daisy Chain Farm, Belfast, Maine. Photo credit: Daisy Chain Farm. Find them online!

Studies show that access to healthy, affordable nutritional food is an issue in urban areas, as well as rural regions. Michelle Kaiser, researcher in the School of Social Work in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, says:

People don’t think of rural areas as places without healthy foods. However, many people live miles from the nearest store, and this makes them less likely to buy fresh, perishable foods because they buy groceries less often. In urban areas, many people buy their food from restaurants or convenience stores, where nutritious food is scarce. Even if there is a nearby grocery store, many people don’t have access to reliable transportation to those stores.

Increasing the availability of whole-foods, such as fruits and vegetables, enables people to avoid processed, unhealthy foods.

What’s more, local food production enables a country or region to overcome food insecurity and recover from emergencies. When disaster strikes, distribution channels can fail and supermarkets can become out-of-stock in short order. By focusing on farming as a way forward, we’re investing in our own long-term food security.

3. Stewardship Opportunities

A 2012 report by the UN titled “Food & Agriculture: the Future of Sustainability” suggests that significant investment in small and medium-sized farms is needed to improve the overall health and viability of our food system worldwide.

Small family farms have been shown to be the most effective, per acre, at ecological stewardship, biodiversity and production of nutrition. These small farms are better able to maintain the quality of soil, air and water, compared to large scale agriculture, which degrades soil and water quality in the short term, reducing the biological health of the soil ecosystem, and also making them more vulnerable to disease, drought, crisis and collapse.

Farming key to reducing greenhouse gases and improving our overall health with better food options. It’s time to support these small farms and invest in local agriculture.

4. Increased Self-Reliance

Fostering local agriculture increases a community’s self-reliance and reduces our overall dependence on Industry. Small farms are teaching facilities where people can learn that there’s something everyone can do right now, to improve their own self-sufficiency and live healthier lives. Your local farmers can teach you everything from how to cook the vegetables and meats you buy at the farmers’ market, to how to bake your own bread, how to compost, and how to grow your own food─farmers are always willing to share their knowledge and skill-sets.

Increased self-reliance allows us to avoid more processed foods, live healthier, more meaningful lives, and save money too. These skills give us independence from big Industry, which doesn’t always have our best interests at heart, and affords communities a measure of security knowing that if something were to happen tomorrow to prevent the distribution of food and goods to the supermarkets, we have the capability of providing for ourselves and those around us. Farming as a way forward allows us more independence.

5. Build Community

Scientific studies indicate that food, specifically when shared and experienced with others, has also shown to benefit our minds, enrich our feelings toward other people, and it can increase people’s trust and cooperation with one another. Social psychologist, Shankar Vedantam states:

“To eat the same foods as another person suggests that we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies. People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they are. And then trust, cooperation—these are just the consequences of feeling close to someone.”

It may not seem like a ground-breaking discovery, but sharing food with other people can have longstanding effects and should be utilized as a powerful tool in our community-building arsenal. Food has an amazing ability to draw us together. We all have powerful memories of being cooked for, and those acts of generosity and love run deep within us─they inspire us, and compel us to reciprocate. Through food we can foster relationships, motivate people and build community.

6. Vibrant Farming Community

farming as a way forward for economically depressed regions
Seedling production at Bumbleroot Organic Farm, Windham, Maine. Photo credit: Bumbleroot Organic Farm.  Find them online!

Maine has a longstanding agricultural legacy that pre-dates the arrival of European settlers, and at one time our great state was considered the bread-basket of the nation. Since the 17th century farming has changed significantly, but agriculture has continued to be a driving force in our state, with new farms being started at a rate nearly four times faster than the national average. Maine also boasts one of the highest organic-to-conventional farm ratios in the United States.

We’re fortunate to have a robust farmer support system, with MOFGA─the nation’s oldest and largest organic farming organization, the Maine Farmland Trust, and a surprising lack of partisan preoccupation when it comes to agriculture in the state-houses. Why shouldn’t we build upon this industry that’s already established and thriving in our state?

7. Land-Rich

Maine is a land-rich state. With the exception of the coastal region and some scattered cities in the southern and central part of the state, we’re still very rural, with large tracts of land yet undeveloped. Land that had once been farmed has since been abandoned and is just waiting for a good steward to breathe life back into it. Entire fields where dairy cows once grazed have been forgotten, and in many cases are merely bush-hogged annually to keep the forest at bay.

Many homeowners own more than half an acre, and some families possess larger tracts that are passed down from one generation to the next. If you were born and stayed here in Maine, there’s a good chance you know someone who has acreage where opportunity for farming exists. This is a huge resource that Mainers can utilize to generate income for themselves─if only they would consider farming as a way forward.

Consider Farming as a Way Forward

Society’s long-standing perception of farming as a poor career choice is pervasive, but slowly beginning to crumble thanks to the modern agricultural movement. There’s a new generation of farmers on the horizon─they come to farming from all walks of life, and a broad spectrum of demographics and interests. Not just young people, but parents seeking a better lifestyle for their families, older folks looking to make a change in their lives or to start something new; they’re an incredibly diverse group. 

These new-age farmers want to make a difference in the world; they’re into the idea of clean food and living more sustainably on the land. People are finally beginning to realize that our natural resources in this world are not going to last forever; these new-generation farmers want to do their part─not only to conserve what we have for future generations─but also because it’s the right thing to do.

Who are we to think ourselves so superior to every other life-form on this planet that we can justify the consumption of Earth’s resources? How can we legitimize the ravaging of the planet that we share with other creatures? And what gives us the right in the here-and-now to disregard those who will come after we are gone? What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? and would our descendants thank us for it if they ever could?

If we search our hearts, I think we all know the answers to those questions. No, you’ll likely never get rich serving the land and community, but farming IS a viable way forward, and I urge you to consider it. I urge our elected officials not to overlook the possibilities that agriculture holds for our rural regions. I ask parents not to disregard the opportunities that farming might offer your children. And I beseech people young and old to consider farming─on any scale─to make a difference in this world.

What do YOU think? Feel free to weigh in; leave a comment below!

Introducing GreenStalk Vertical Gardens! Our New Affiliate Partner!

greenstalk affiliate

I’m excited to introduce Runamuk’s new affiliate partner: GreenStalk Vertical Gardens and you should be too because they’ve given Runamuk a coupon code worth $10 off their stackable garden planters. Check out the new button in my sidebar on the left-hand side of the Runamuk website─pretty sharp right?

greenstalk affiliate
GreenStalk Vertical Garden Planters─pretty nifty right?

Honestly, I don’t make much money off my writing, but then─that’s not really the purpose of this blog. The purpose is to express myself through the telling of my story as a farmer, and to share what I’ve learned in the hopes of helping others live a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle as well.

Yet this blog and website, along with the resources offered here, are a service provided by Runamuk that make up part of my business model. The funds generated here through sponsorships and affiliate partnerships go directly to Runamuk, helping me to continue farming─helping me to pay for things like chicken feed, supplies for the apiary, or even the farm’s liability insurance.

I’m humble enough and realistic enough to know that most writers never make it big. I’ll never be the next JK Rowling, but it’s a skill I possess and I can use it to generate at least part of my income. And I do make some money writing. You can be sure I included those figures in my financials when I approached the FSA with my loan request. Runamuk is a diverse operation; this blog and my talent as a writer are part of my business model. I hope to expand this aspect of my operation once Runamuk is settled at our new forever-farm home. Stay tuned for more on that in upcoming posts.

greenstalk_zucchini
Use them to grow flowers or herbs, or even as a means of small-scale food production!

The GreenStalk affiliate program is by invitation only, so I was lucky that Ashley Skeen stumbled upon my website. She’s the marketing manager at GreenStalk and she reached out to me to invite me to partner with them, and offered to send me a GreenStalk and the Mover to try for myself and review for them! How cool is that!?

greenstalk_herbs
BPA Free and UV Resistant!

I told her she’d better wait to send the GreenStalk til after the move lol, but I wanted to introduce them to you now. I think they’re offering an innovative approach to food-production in small spaces; with another growing season upon us I believe there are folks out there who will be able to put the GreenStalk to good use.

These are stackable planters with a unique watering system that allows the gardener to grow a lot in just 2 square feet of space. You could use it to grow flowers, herbs, and even vegetables. They’re BPA free and UV-resistant too, so they’ll last for years. I really like the fact that GreenStalk is a small family owned business out of Tennessee, and I love that their products are made 100% in the USA. Go to their website to see how the GreenStalk works!

greenstalk_mover
This Mover makes relocating the GreenStalk easy-peasy!

Without a doubt I’m looking forward to trying the GreenStalk. Initially I was thinking I would use it to produce a tower of herbs that I could position just outside the front door to keep them handy to the kitchen for cooking; then at the end of the season I could simply use the Mover to wheel the tower inside for the winter and still have fresh herbs. However, as I poured over the photo album on their website I came up with an even better idea, which I’m really excited about.

My son BraeTek had expressed some interest in growing blackberries and raspberries at the new farm and was disappointed when I told him we’d have to wait til next year to really start putting in perennials like that. BraeTek has been involved in the farmers’ market with me off and on over these last 5 years; he’s quite the entrepreneur actually─selling lemonade, iced tea and dog biscuits. Now he wants to grow berries so that he can make frozen smoothie pops to sell to kids at the farmers’ market. Naturally I want to encourage him, but the realities of moving a farm and family and getting everyone settled again makes me reluctant to get too carried away with planting much in the way of perennials this first year. This will be a transition year.

greenstalk_kale
Look at all the kale you can grow with the GreenStalk Vertical Garden!

It occurred to me though, as I looked through the photos shared by the GreenStalk community, that we could use the GreenStalk to raise strawberries. Johnny’s has some varieties that perform very well in containers and I knew I still had time to order bare-root plants for this season. When I showed BraeTek the pictures of what I had in mind he gave me an enthusiastic “Okay!”

Later that same day I placed my order for 25 of the Seascape strawberry variety offered by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. There are 30 planting pockets on the GreenStalk, so I thought we could fill in the remaining 5 pockets with a few herbs or flowers and the tower will look great standing in the front yard at the Hive House!

greenstalk_zucchiniIt’s going to be fantastic having our own fresh strawberries. I admit I am strongly biased against buying strawberries. Strawberries are #1 on the list of “Dirty Dozen”, with the highest concentrations of pesticides. Even when washed and rinsed they are still likely to be contaminated─they’re like a sponge─they just soak up the chemicals. If I do buy strawberries I always buy Organic, but as a farmer I know that even some approved organic pesticides can be harmful. Growing your own is really the safest way to get strawberries.

Note: Check out this report from the Environmental Working Group to learn more about the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen.

I’m especially looking forward to working on this project with my son. I want my children to be producers in this world. I want them to know how to make things, grow food, and do things for themselves. Some day they might need those skills, and also, I feel a certain level of production is essential for a full and satisfying life. Check back soon to see updates on BraeTek’s strawberry production project using the GreenStalk planter.

Be sure to click on the new GreenStalk button in the sidebar to check out our new affiliate partner! Use promo code RUNAMUK to get $10 off yours!

#WinterGrowingChallenge #4: Wrapping It Up

yummy pea shoots

We’ve reached the end of my #WinterGrowingChallenge for the 2017-2018 winter season and I already know I’m going to do it again next year. I’m determined to provide as much of my own food for my family as I can, and growing shoots and sprouts in a kitchen window is an easy and inexpensive way to continue eating fresh greens through the long winters we have here in Maine. It just makes good sense!

yummy pea shoots
Some of my pea shoots sitting in the window.

Growing my own shoots and sprouts this winter was definitely rewarding; I love the flavor and freshness I get when I produce my own greens. Yet, I admit the project was not without a little difficulty─mainly related to space and living conditions at my present location.

I don’t want people to think that space is a limiting factor, because I truly believe that our own passion and determination dictate the success we will have in life─but I’ve struggled with my living situation for a number of personal reasons that I will not go into for consideration of all parties involved. Suffice it to say that I’ve been feeling rather claustrophobic this winter and it has been difficult to make use of the space here.

The project really fell apart for me in early February, when I made that trip to Portland to spend a weekend at Maine General with my son. That was followed by the bitter conclusion of the SBF saga and the abrupt turnabout of my pursuit of an entirely different property. Both of my boys celebrate birthdays in February too─and I’ve picked up more hours at Johnny’s as we slough through our busiest time of year in the Call Center. So, in part, life just got in the way during the month of February.

lil shoot salad
Some of my simplest salads consisted only of fresh shoots!

However, I did produce greens December through January, ate some very fine, super-fresh salads, supplemented my diet─and I even inspired a few readers to do it too. I’d say that overall the #WinterGrowingChallenge was a success.

Next winter I fully intend to host another #WinterGrowingChallenge here at Runamuk. We’ll be all moved into our new forever-farm by then and I can get the kids involved too.

I believe that everyone should have some understanding of how food is produced. And I believe that those who have the space and ability to grow even a portion of their own food should do so. But I especially want my own children to know how to grow their own food. I want them to have that connection to nature and the world around us that so many people are seemingly oblivious to. Some day this world will be their responsibility and I hope that I will have imparted some of my own values upon them, so that they will want to carry on my work in some form or fashion. Then I will know that I will have completed my life’s mission─and then I will be able to step aside and retire………..

Just kidding! I’m never going to stop advocating for wildlife conservation! The kids will just have to learn to work with me!

Thanks for following along with Runamuk! Subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly in your in-box! Check back soon for some up-coming spring growing posts!!!

Under Contract AGAIN!

hive house

The road to farm-ownership has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride, and it’s a huge relief to have a property under contract again. After letting go of the Swinging Bridge Farm, my realtor, Leah J. Watkins, and I toured the property at 344 School Street last Wednesday. I decided on the spot to make an offer for it, so Leah drafted the paperwork and we sent it to the Seller later that evening. Yesterday my offer was accepted and just like that I am back in the game!

hive house
The house at 344 School Street. Photo courtesy: Google.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for me. I was already stressed because of the downward spiral my loan for the Swinging Bridge Farm was taking, and then my older son, William was sent to Portland where he ultimately ended up having his gallbladder removed!

Emergency Surgery

William is high functioning Autistic, and studies show that those children are more likely to have digestive issues, but he began to have these “stomach pains” infrequently over the last year or so. He’s always had some issues with constipation, but these “pains” were something else. Something alarming.

At first we tried eliminating dairy, thinking maybe he was lactose intolerant, which would explain his constipation. But the pains still came─not all the time, and sometimes worse than others. It all came to a head at the beginning of the month, around the same time that my loan for SBF was tanking. William hadn’t “gone” in a week and he’d spent a weekend in pain; Keith (my ex-husband and the father of my children) took the boy to the Emergency Room.

william in the hospital
William was jaundiced and yellow-eye prior to his surgery: here he’s upset that Mom insisted on a pre-surgery picture…

On Friday an ultrasound at Reddington Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan revealed that William had gallstones! And one of them had obstructed his bile duct. His doctor sent us to the Maine General Medical Center in Portland, where they have a very good pediatric staff. That Friday night William was put under so that doctors could perform a laproscopic procedure to eliminate the offending gallstone.

The next morning we consented to allow the gastroenterologist to remove the gallbladder altogether, as William would have inevitably suffered relapses related to his many remaining gallstones. Having suffered from gallstones myself I could not let my baby continue to suffer from the pain that can flare up as a result. William has always been a very good eater─he naturally regulates his own diet so that he’s eating diverse array of all food-groups. I’ve never had to fight with him to eat his vegetables, or to try the fish; he likes it all. So I was fairly confident that diet alone would not save my baby. And since he’d always been a bit bound up, the possible side-effect of looser stools was less of a threat than the promise of regularity for William.

On Saturday morning at 7:30 William was wheeled back into the operating room. He was brave and affable the whole time. I could see on Friday night that he just wanted the pain to be over, and then by Saturday morning he was enjoying the extra attention lavished upon him in the hospital. By Sunday he was back to his usual moody-self.

Hit With the Flu

Meanwhile, William’s father and I both came down with the flu while we were at the hospital. Keith succumbed first; laid low by the time we woke up on Saturday morning at the boy’s bedside. After William came through his second procedure safely I sent Keith home to his bed and stayed on at the hospital with William while he was under observation in his recovery room in the Pediatric Short-Stay Unit of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital─the pediatric wing at Maine General. Saturday night I was taken down with the chills and a fever, I had to ask the nurse to bring me another blanket, but I was still cold. The kindly nurses felt so bad for me that they brought me some ibuprofen to help with my fever and after that I was able to function enough to get my child through the remainder of his ordeal.

Thankfully it wasn’t a severe strain of the flu, but it morphed into a nasty cold that came with a horrendous cough─and conjunctivitis! When I showed up at Johnny’s the following Tuesday for my usual shift my supervisors took one look at my glowing red eyes and sent me to see a doctor to make sure I wasn’t going to die. They knew how stressed I’d been about the deal for SBF and were worried that my blood pressure might be causing a hemorrhage.

Turns out it was conjunctivitis.

Processing my Break-Up With SBF

I was laid low again when I came to the realization that I was going to have to let go of the Swinging Bridge Farm. I admit that I was utterly heartbroken and defeated. My friends and colleagues, even acquaintances online whom I’ve never met in real life, supported me. I worked through the worst of it, answering the phone at Johnny’s, glad for the distraction as I processed the information and weighed my options.

I considered a whole range of possibilities, from working full-time at Johnny’s to taking a year off from farming─I even considered giving up farming altogether. Big failures have a tendancy to make us question our choices, and so I did. In the end I came to the conclusion that I’d come too far to give up now, but that it was time to make some compromises. I want to continue farming and supporting my community in the way that I have, but I also want my kids to have the home I’ve promised them.

There was just one other property available in my area and price-range. The strange-looking mansard house on School Street in New Portland. This house had been available last fall too, but I didn’t love it the way I did the Swinging Bridge Farm.

Even now I’m still healing from letting SBF go. It wasn’t so much about the house─it was the trees and the rock walls that I fell in love with there. I loved the sheer wildness of the neglected old farm, the mature forest and those gnarly old apple trees. I have a thing for trees and for the history glimpsed in the rockwalls that criss-cross the landscape here in Maine. On a deeply personal level SBF spoke to me and I’ll always remember the way those woods made me feel.

Good Business Sense

However I have to admit that from a business and family stand point, the property at 344 School Street checks all the boxes:

  • Barn for assembling & storing bee-hive equipment.
  • Garage for storing garden equipment & tractor.
  • Pasture for chickens.
  • Open, level acreage for gardens.
  • Public water makes it easy to get Home Processing License for bottling honey.
  • Dishwasher─another plus for getting Home Processing License.
  • A whopping 5 bedrooms, 2 living rooms, and an office space too! Gives my family plenty of space to settle in.
  • House in good repair: means I can spend more time farming and less time fixing the dwelling to make it suitable for my family to live in.
  • Road frontage and proximity to heavily traveled Route 16 makes my farm more accessible to customers.

It’s only a third of the acreage I would have had at SBF, but still a respectable chunk, and perhaps better suited to my needs─if not my heart.

Under Contract AGAIN!

hive house
She’s in great condition and offers lots of space; she’s growing on me! Photo courtesy Google.

It took the Seller 6 days to respond to my offer. There was the same initial confusion regarding the FSA loan process that we’d seen the Fletchers balk over when I made a move for SBF. There is no “pre-qualification” with the Farm Service Agency, and there are a number of hurdles to be overcome in the ordeal: the Financial Eligibility, the Environmental Assessment, and the Property Appraisal. It’s a lot of paperwork and red tape with the government agricultural office, and frankly it’s intimidating.

Eventually the Seller came around and said yes. I received the Sale Contract yesterday morning and immediately sent it over to Nathan, my FSA Agent. An hour later I was in the Somerset County USDA office in Skowhegan signing the application for the financing of the 344 School Street property.

Essentially I’m back to square one: applying all over again for the loan, but with a nice head-start on the paperwork, and a promise from Nathan to speed things along as best he can. Don’t get too carried away though─this is the government we’re talking about, and appraisers are apparently booked out til May now that the FSA office is coming into it’s busy-season. We can’t close til we get the Appraisal done, so we may very well be looking at a 3-4 month wait before I can move Runamuk to her forever-farm property.

Gearing Up

Meanwhile, I’ve been gearing up for another season─making soap when I’m not at Johnny’s, as well as ordering replacement colonies and supplies for the apiary, onion plants, seed potatoes and “just a few” packets of seeds. If all this works out, I’ll likely be moving in the midst of Swarm Season: the beekeeper’s busiest time of year, but I’m hoping to wrangle a few friends into helping this time around.

Runamuk’s #GreatFarmMove; #theFinalChapter; will be the end of one book, and the beginning of a whole new sequel in my life. I know it’s going to be hard work. I know it’ll be exhausting. unending. work. But I look forward to the labors, and the inevitable blood, sweat and tears─because I’ll finally be able to build upon something year after year, for the next 40 years of my life. I look forward to finally being able to put down roots and to being able to cultivate the soil where I live. And I especially look forward to promoting bee-friendly ideals, and sustainable living for a better and brighter tomorrow.

When I think about all the work ahead of me upon Closing, I can’t help but square my shoulders and lift my chin in determination. I look the challenge that is farming right in the eye and say: Bring. It. On.

Check back soon for more updates on my journey toward farm-ownership! It’s a new season full of new opportunities and exciting adventures to come! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly in your in-box!

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

inspect your nucleus colonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

When do we move?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018; Year 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019; Year 2

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

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

sbf_apple trees
Apple trees in need of pruning at SBF.

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

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

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

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

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

2020; Year 3

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

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

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

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

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

Years 4 & 5

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

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

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

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

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

inspect your nucleus coloniesIn Pencil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runamuk’s 2017 Year’s End Review: Part 2

employee shirt_jss beekeeper

When I first started selling vegetables nearly 8 years ago, I was a stay-at-home homeschooling mom to 2 rowdy young boys. I wanted to earn an income without having to get a job outside the home, and what started with a 10-family CSA has grown and transformed into a diverse apiary operation with supporting acts from egg production, vegetable gardening and writing.

sbf_sideview
In 2018 Runamuk will be moving one last time!

Studious research, careful planning, dogged pursuit of goals, and lots of hardwork and patience has grown Runamuk to this precipice. We’ve climbed the ladder, one year at a time, taken the knocks and kept on going, and now we stand poised to receive this storybook farm where I hope to continue my work, and inspire more farmers, gardeners, homesteaders and homeowners to employ bee-friendly practices wherever they are. At long last, I can finally begin in earnest this important work. Read on for Part 2 of our 2017 Year’s End Review: the Farm….

Note: Click this link to read our 2017 Year’s End Farm Review Part 1: The Farmer.

Johnny’s vs Gardening On the Side

We all have strengths and weaknesses. I am a compulsive “Doer”. I almost always want to be “doing something”, working on something and being productive. It’s incredibly difficult for me to be in a cubicle in an office building for 8 and a half hours a day─sitting there. It was a big adjustment when I first began working for Johnny’s Selected Seeds 3 years ago, after I’d been a stay-at-home homeschooling and homesteading mamma for 12 years.

Johnny’s hires local gardeners and farmers to staff their research farm, the offices, and especially to answer the phones in their Call Center. Not only do they sell seeds and tools, Johnny’s offers information─to assist gardeners and farmers in successfully growing food. That’s what I do for the company, and it can be very rewarding sometimes. January through June the Call Center is a madhouse as growers from all over the world rush to purchase seeds, potatoes, onions, berry plants and tools from the Maine-based seed company. Johnny’s has grown exponentially over the last decade and has become synonymous with the small and organic farm movement.

employee shirt_jss beekeeper
Check out the sweet shirt Johnny’s gave me! Perfect for working in the apiary!!!

To meet the demand during the busy season Johnny’s hires extra help referred to as “Seasonals”. These are often local farmers like myself, with their own farming operations, and that’s how I was hired. Except I’ve loitered about the establishment a bit, working 1 or 2 days a week even through the growing season, after all the other Seasonals had returned to their farms. Following my divorce I needed that supplemental income. They’ve offered me full-time more than once, and I’m sure if I set my mind to it I could land a position in a different part of the company─on the research farm perhaps, or in the warehouse where the seeds are packed and shipped. But the Call Center is the only part of the company with the flexibility to be able to allow me to work just part-time. With my own farm to look after and children too, each day that I spend away is a day taken away from Runamuk. For Runamuk, my time is a precious commodity.

This spring, I decided I was not going to be left behind when the other farmers left for the summer. To take the place of my Johnny’s paycheck I offered my skills as a gardener to my local community and lined up more than half a dozen clients. I bade farewell to my colleagues and the office, drove home in the sun, and seemingly the next day the spring rains began.

When it wasn’t raining I enjoyed the work immensely. Not all of the clientele I’d lined up followed through with their job offers, but the 2 that did were great folks to work for. A friend of mine in the Madison community who has a large family and a homestead of their own who just needed some extra help, and an older couple in Skowhegan who have an immaculate yard with beds of gorgeous irises and lilies, as well as an assortment of shrubs, trees, and other flowering things. Marvelous folks.

But the rainy days took their toll on my bank account, and I discovered that gardening as a side-business was just another business to run. By mid-summer I was back to working 2 days a week in the Call Center because my finances required the stability of the paycheck from Johnny’s.

The Apiary

Following the drought in the fall of 2016 I had opted to leave the fall honey stores on my hives going into the winter. Inevitably not all of my hives survived the winter, and I was able to harvest some of the honey I’d previously written off. For the first time in 2 years I was able to sell honey at the farmers’ market, and those sales in combination with the exceedingly low overhead at Paul’s were a boon to Runamuk’s financial situation.

choosing apiary location
Site your apiary in a location that will keep hives dry, buffered from the wind, and with good sun exposure.

I was determined to continue growing my operation in spite of the set back of not actually having a property to farm on. I replaced lost hives with packaged bees purchased from Peter Cowin of Hampden, and brought a number of nucleus colonies from Bob Egan in Skowhegan to add to my own surviving colonies. These colonies all built up well this spring, and with adequate rainfall we had a decent honey harvest in the summer, allowing Runamuk to offer local customers the choice between the dark, fall honey, and the recently extracted spring honey, which is lighter and sweeter in flavor.

In addition, I tried my hand at raising my own Queens for the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping. The intention of learning this valuable skill was to be able to make my apiary more sustainable, and inherently more viable. It was incredibly rewarding to see those long slender Queens, and I’m looking forward to devoting more time to Queen-rearing next season.

queen cells
Queen-cells the bees and I built this spring!

Farm & Garden

The farm aspect of Runamuk currently consists of it’s chicken flock for eggs, which we have traditionally sold at the farmers’ market as well as direct from the farm. While we do grow a few vegetables to sell at market, the underlying focus of the Runamuk garden is to feed it’s farmer─myself and my family─a significant undertaking in itself.

egg-production-in-a-hoop-house
Farm fresh eggs from free-ranged chickens!

At our present location we are able to free range the chickens, who happily scratch up the forest underbrush hunting for greens and insects. However with no pasture to speak of, and less than ideal coop-conditions, I opted to hold off on buying new chicks this year. Not unexpectedly, we have experienced a significant decrease in egg production as the flock ages. I opted to hold off on replacing the birds til after the #GreatFarmMove #theFinalChapter and had intended to slaughter the oldest birds to send to “Freezer Camp”, however timing was prohibitive and I was only able to get a handful of meat put away.

This is where friends and community are a huge asset. My friend Sonia over at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison had a couple of pigs to process and needed help. In exchange for our participation in a good old fashioned hog-killing party, Paul and I received half a pig in the form of various cuts, packaged and frozen for us to add to our “Freezer Camp”. We also received some venison, moose, and bear meat from Paul’s family, who are avid hunters and had good luck this hunting season. I think with our largely plant-based diet I should be able to stretch the meat til spring; what a blessing!

The garden at Paul’s place was a first-year plot that we had to reclaim from the raspberries that had cropped up following some selective cutting done several years ago. It’s a very sandy patch of land off the Ward Hill Road in Norridgewock that Paul owns adjacent his parents, grandfather, and aunt. The oak trees love it and the sound of the acorns raining on his tin roof in the fall is fantastic, but it took some adjustment on my part to grow crops there. At previous locations I have grown in heavy clay soil, fine loam, and somewhat sandy conditions, but nothing compared to the dune-sand (not an exaggeration) we have here.

awesome carrot crop_2017
Awesome carrot crop!

Keeping things adequately watered was the biggest challenge and Paul made it his priority to keep plants alive utilizing a second well to feed the series of soaker hoses and drip tubing he’d rigged up. We also scored several loads of wood chips from a local arborist, and everything was heavily mulched to retain moisture.

In this sandy garden we produced some very fine-looking onions, green beans, dry beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, amaranth, lettuces, radishes, beets, summer and winter squashes, and the best crops of carrots and cucumbers I’ve grown in all my 20 years of gardening. We managed to produce enough vegetables to eat primarily out of the garden all summer, and we’re still eating our own vegetables even now. I’ll let you know when we run out, but I think I almost have enough to get us through to April when I can sow the first crops of the 2018 season and once again eat from the garden.

forum onion crop
I sold my onions in bunches of 3 and 4 at the farmers’ market. They were a big hit!

I do less in the way of market gardening then I once did, choosing instead to focus my efforts on the bees, but I still grow for myself and I like to have the diversity at my stand during the market season so I take a few vegetables every now and again. When Johnny’s presented “Forum”, a short-day onion available in the form of sets, I saw an opportunity to get onions to the market before the other veggie vendors and perhaps corner the market on that particular crop. Forum did beautifully; I managed to get them to size up by July and I had big beautiful, fresh-looking onions in bunches well ahead of the competition. Customers ate them up. Literally lol.

Blog & Writing

growing food is radical protest
Growing your own food is a radical form of protest.

For me, writing is as much about self-expression as it is a form of activism. Afterall, I am a devout environmentalist, seeking to affect change by first starting with myself. It is my hope that by boldly leading the way and bravely sharing my story, I will inspire others to follow suit.

Why should I do this? Why subject myself to scrutiny and judgement?

For love of course.

If you have been following along with my story, you know that I have a deep affinity for nature. A connection with the Earth that has never been matched. I seek to protect what I love─the beauty and wonder of our magnificent planet─this place we call home.

It is this love that compels me to take action in the face of the injustices and the maltreatment of this planet. I cannot sit idly by and ignore the grievances, so I work to change my own behaviors first. I’ve given of myself to my community, affecting change on a local level, and I write to reach a broader audience in hopes of swaying more people to also take up the cause.

This year I wrote 18 articles, 29 journal entries related to my journey as a beginning and female farmer─as well as my progress in pursuit of a forever-farm home. I updated 4 older articles, and published 1 guest post to the blog─for a total of 52 pieces of writing in 2017.

The readership of the Runamuk blog grew from little more than 300 to over 3500 subscribers; THAT’s pretty huge. We continued our relationship with our sponsor, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, who worked with us to connect one lucky grower with a new Jang JP1 Seeder. I was pretty proud of that, but coming in at 36 on the list of Top 100 Homesteading Blogs really took the cake.

Reader input invited: I’ve been toying with the idea of expanding into YouTube videos. There are several farmers I watch regularly on YouTube─ John Suscovich of Farm Marketing Solutions and Richard Perkins of Ridgedale Permaculture I follow religiously. I also watch Curtis Stone and Diego Footer on occasion, but I haven’t found similar valuable content distributed by female farmers and so I’m considering moving to fill that niche.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact gender can have on the farmer. Is it really an issue? Or is it just my perception that it’s an issue? Are other women feeling it too? Or is it just me who feels the effects of gender bias in this male-dominated career/world? To get some outside perspective I recently bought “The Rise of Women Farmers & Sustainable Agriculture” and “Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers“, and I’ve been listening a lot to the Female Farmer Podcast. So the idea is to make videos for women, by women…

I worry though that I don’t have the same aptitude for talking so casually on camera that seems to come naturally to these guys. I’ve always maintained a motto of “practice makes perfect”, even when it comes to something like socializing, but do you think one could overcome their innate social awkwardness to do justice to the service of providing valuable content via YouTube? Would it be worth my time and effort I wonder? And to what degree would it detract from my work here on the Runamuk blog, which has come so far?

Yet it seems that much of mainstream society no longer wants to read and prefers to watch videos instead. It’s possible that expanding Runamuk to YouTube would grow our audience even more. Maybe we can reach more gardeners, homesteaders and farmers and help them to learn the skills to be more self-sufficient. Maybe I can inspire even more folks to live sustainable lifestyles, and teach the world to be more bee-friendly.

What do you think? Should I try my hand at making YouTube videos? Leave me a comment at the end of this post to share your thoughts…

Madison Farmers’ Market

As Director of the Madison Farmers’ Market I devoted a lot of time and energy to our local association of farmers. Food has become increasingly important to me: real food, local food, organic food and food that hasn’t been modified or coated with chemicals. Access to real and local food in my hometown community is almost as crucial to me as pollinator conservation. Did you know that?

sonia at market
My friend Sonia of Hide & Go Peep Farm at the Madison Farmers’ Market this spring.

This was the Madison Farmers’ Market’s 5th season. When I first embarked to create a farmers’ market in my hometown it was just myself and 1 other vendor sitting alongside Main Street. The market has grown to 9 now, with a devout following of regular customer and a blossoming community centered around real and local food. Our customers tell us we are the friendliest market of all those they visit, and we pride ourselves on that welcoming atmosphere.

After 4 years growing our market, the collective group of farmers that make up the Madison Farmers’ Market finally decided the time had come to switch from a Sunday market to Saturday. The positive reaction from the community was palpable. We saw a significant increase in traffic at the market this season as more people took advantage of the market to stock up on fresh veggies, baked goods, grass-fed meats, goat cheeses, raw honey and more─all grown within 20 miles of Madison.

Last year we had some serious complications with the company who was handling our credit card transactions, which effectively allows the farmers’ market to also accept EBT from SNAP shoppers. This year, with the help of the folks at the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, we were able to line up a new processing company, new equipment, and an improved system at the Madison Farmers’ Market. It made a world of difference.

snapshot week at mfm
We’ve grown a community of market-going patrons in Madison! A truly grassroots movement in this small Maine town!

Our EBT program has been instrumental in attracting new customers to our growing market, and it makes shopping local affordable for more households within our community. By participating in the Maine Harvest Bucks program our market is able to offer SNAP shoppers matching bonus bucks for their purchases with EBT; they are then able to use those bonus bucks to purchase more fruits and vegetables. At the end of every market day my farmers receive a check for transactions processed by the market on their behalf.

The market invested in it’s own tent and table this year, having previously been operated out of the Runamuk tent, and it was dubbed “the Information Booth”. I took on the responsibility of setting up and manning the Info Booth, and I found that we could use the station as a way to further cultivate the sense of community that our farmers have grown in Madison.

Inspired by the idea of a Kid’s Club I gleaned at the annual Maine Farmers’ Market Convention, I decided to launch a program of our own. I visited elementary schools in Madison, Anson, and North Anson alongside Cheryl Curtis of Somerset Health to pitch the idea to my target audience. The children were excited by my enthusiasm I think, and we saw a number of them throughout the course of the summer, come to solve our weekly market riddle and participate in silly games and activities we crafted for them.

new kids club at mfm 2017
We saw many kids visit on a regular basis, taking advantage of our free Kid’s Club program and getting to know their local farmers.

This was a very good year for the Madison Farmers’ Market. I am so proud of the progress we’ve made!

Biggest Lessons Learned

At the start of this year I was all but ready to give up on farming. As a mother I’ve moved my children around too much in the name of my own dreams and desires and I wasn’t feeling particularly good about where we’d ended up. Yet it was that same maternal drive that compelled me to take up the cause once more, and to lay it all on the line one more time in hopes of giving my family the life I’d always imagined. Thanks to that perseverance we will be moving to the Swinging Bridge Farm in 2018, where we will begin a new chapter in the Runamuk saga.

3 biggest lessons I learned as a farmer/beekeeper in 2017:

  1. Working locally as a gardener was just another business to manage.
  2. Start earlier in the season with the Queen-rearing project.
  3. You can grow your own food just about anywhere, if you set your mind to it.

Totally Worth It

I’ve been gardening since I was 16, becoming increasingly zealous about homesteading as a means of sustainable living, but it’s been just these last 8 years I’ve been working toward earning an income from farming. I’ve faced the same challenges other beginning farmers face, including the learning curve, lack of capital, and land access. I’ve also faced challenges specific to women farmers: gender bias, the demands of children and family upon my time, and lack of support. Even some that are unique to me alone─a child on the Autism Spectrum, divorce, and the decision to base my business on bees at a time when keeping bees alive is challenging at best. Here I am now, at the conclusion of 2017 fresh with the victory of the FSA’s approval of my loan request, and on the cusp of closing on the purchase of my very own #foreverfarm.

I hope that the biggest take-away from my story is to never give up. Farming is hard and can certainly be challenging at times, but the rewards are so sweet and so tremendous that I promise─if you stick it out─it will all be worth it in the end. Carpe diem, my friend. Seize the day.

Thanks for following along! Check back in 2018 for more of Runamuk’s story as we get ready to move to the Swinging Bridge Farm in New Portland, Maine!

years end review

How to Grow Shoots for a Supply of Leafy Green Vegetables This Winter

pea shoots

Supply your household with a source of fresh, leafy green vegetables this winter by learning how to grow your own shoots indoors. If you’ve never tried it, I’m offering you the perfect opportunity to try it now and see how easy it really is. Join me in my #WinterGrowingChallenge and grow shoots through the winter this season. I’ve assembled this how-to article to walk you through the process and I’m offering a Quick Start Guide available as a free download that you can print to have on hand. Keep reading to find out more.

Note: If this is your first time here, please follow the link to more about the #WinterGrowingChallenge!

pea shoots
Lush green pea shoots. Photo courtesy Magic Valley Greens N Things.

Step 1: Gather Supplies

Growing shoots is super simple and you probably already have most of the required supplies in your kitchen.

  • winter growing shoot seed
    Shoot and sprouting seed ordered from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

    Seeds: You can find sprouting seeds at your local health-food store, but for better selection you may want to look online. Check out Johnny’s listings of shoots and sprouts, and feel free to call me on Mondays or Tuesdays when I’m in the Call Center for help in selecting varieties for your family; just ask if Sam is available!

  • Soil: a standard germination mix works fine. Typically available at your local garden center or hardware store. It’s a mix of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and lime.
  • Trays: aluminum foil half-loaf bread pans, 4×6-inch seedling tray, or even the bottom of a milk jug or a ceramic cereal bowl.
  • Organic fertilizer: fish emulsion or kelp meal. Both should be available at your local garden center, but if not you can find fish emulsion at Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
  • Warm, dark spot: a kitchen cupboard or closet shelf.
  • Newspapers: you should be able to get your hands on some newspaper, but if not try substituting with paper towels, newsprint packing paper, or paper napkins.
  • Measuring cups & spoons
  • Watering can
  • Small glasses or plastic cups
  • Small strainer or sieve
  • 1 gallon Ziploc bag
  • 1 gallon plastic juice container
  • Seeds for sprouts/shoots
  • Sunny windowsill
  • Scissors

Step 2: Soak the Seeds & Prep the Soil

sprouting seed soak
Soaking seed before sowing speeds germination.

Prepare to start your shoots by first prepping your soil. Fill the juice container to the brim with germination mix and add water. For a 2-Quart juice container add 2 cups of water. Put the cover on and set it aside, that part’s done.

For every tray I intend to sow I set out 1 cup.

Please note: this recipe is geared toward trays that are 3×6-inches; if your trays are larger you will need to use more seed to cover the soil.

For large seed like peas, sunflower and buckwheat use 1 tablespoon of seed per tray. For small seeds like broccoli and radish, use just 1 teaspoon of seed (it may not look like enough seed to do the job, but trust me, you don’t want to over-sow those little babies!).

Fill the cups halfway with water to completely cover the seeds and leave them for 6 hours or overnight.

Step 3: Prep Trays and Covers

The next morning take 1 sheet of newspaper for each tray you intend to sow and fold each one so that it’s just a little bigger than the tray. Soak these in water and set aside while you prep the trays.

In the bottom of each tray place 1/2 teaspoon of your chosen fertilizer, along with 1 teaspoon of compost. Add 1-1/4 cups of the pre-moistened soil mix (again, this is for a 3×6-inch bread loaf pan) and level it out.

Yay! Now you’re ready to sow the seeds!

sowing seeds to grow shoots
Pea seeds I’ve sown for shoots.

Step 4: Add Seeds and Cover 4 days

trays for growing shoots
Here are my first 3 trays being tucked away in a dresser drawer.

 

Drain the water out of the seeds using the small sieve and sow the trays one at a time, spreading the wet seeds over the soil so that they touch, but are not overlapping each other. Then take your wet newspaper cover and press it into the tray so that it is in direct contact with the seeds.

Now put your covered trays in a warm, dark location and leave them for 4 days. You can keep them in a dresser drawer like I am, or use a kitchen cupboard, closet shelf─anywhere you can create a small space for these to sit that is relatively warm and dark.

Step 5: Remove Covers – Put in Window

On day 5 remove the covers from your trays and place the shoots in a sunny spot. This can be directly in the window, on an end table in the living room that get plenty of sun, or you can even use a grow-light if you don’t have an accessible window.

Step 6: Water Daily for 3-4 days

Water the shoots once a day with 2-4 tablespoons of water. Watch your shoots grow and unfurl tender new leaves! Marvel at the wonder of nature inside your own home!

Step 7: Harvest!!

pea shoots
Pea shoots grown by Moon Valley Farm of Maryland! Check them out online at: https://www.moonvalleyfarm.net/

Now the best part! When your shoots are 4-6 inches tall use a pair of scissors to harvest the greens. Eat them raw to receive their full nutritional benefit. Enjoy a winter salad, put shoots on your sandwich, add them to a smoothie; get creative with it!

FREE DOWNLOAD!!!

Click here to download my Quick Start Guide to try it yourself!

Join me!

Join me this winter on my mission to grow my own shoots to provide my household with a source of fresh, leafy-greens. Try it for yourself at home and see how easy it is! Save money and eat better at the same time! Sounds like an oxymoron right? Well it’s not. Growing shoots at home saves you from buying the sad wilty lettuce at the grocery store, allows you to eat greens so fresh they’re only minutes old, and offers you the opportunity to eat more of those healthful greens. Join me in the #WinterGrowingChallenge this season and eat more veg!

Subscribe to the Runamuk blog by email to receive the latest posts and articles directly in your in-box! Be sure to use the #WinterGrowingChallenge hashtag when sharing your shoot posts and pictures!

how to grow your own shoots

13 Reasons to Grow Your Own Shoots This Winter

pea shoots

I am so pumped about this whole Winter Growing Challenge that I want every household to do this with me and I’m going to give you 13 reasons to grow your own shoots. By doing this together we can encourage the people around us to eat healthier too; we can inspire our friends and family to make a conscious choice to eat more fresh vegetables in the form of leafy greens.

grow your own shoots#1.  Fresh greens every day

By growing your own shoots you can effectively provide your household with fresh leafy greens every single day. No need to go to the grocery store to look over their sad selection of bruised and wilty leaves, or to resort to the pre-packaged iceberg salad mix. You can have a leafy green salad any day of the week─even in the depths of winter by growing your own shoots.

#2.  Super healthful and nutritious

We all know we should be eating more fresh vegetables in order to be healthy, and shoots are some of the most nutritious vegetables you could hope for. Typically, about a week after sprouting, the shoots will have the highest concentration of bioavailability of nutrients. These tiny seedlings are jam-packed with important organic compounds, vitamins and minerals that our bodies can utilize.

#3.  Quick

It seriously takes just 15 minutes to set up 5 trays for growing your own shoots to provide a week’s supply of greens. Daily watering takes less than 2 minutes, and you can harvest the shoots with scissors while you’re already in the process of making a meal. The benefits are well worth the time.

#4.  Easy

It’s so easy that you could teach your children to do it and delegate the task to them as a weekly responsibility. This teaches the the whole family about growing your own food, and the intrinsic value of feeding the people we care for.

#5.  Cheap

pea shoots
Pea shoots grown by Moon Valley Farm of Maryland! Check them out online at: https://www.moonvalleyfarm.net/

The primary expense in growing your own shoots is the seed itself, but in 7 days you can more than double the return on your investment simply by growing those seeds out into fresh greens.

In his book “Year Round Indoor Salad Gardening”, Peter Burke shares that a 3 and a half cup jar of peas is enough seed to plant 56 trays. If you sow 5 trays each week, that’s a little over two month’s supply of fresh greens. The cost of the seed is around $6 and 56 trays of shoots will yield approximately 10 and 3/4 pounds of fresh leafy greens. Peter figures the cost of the trays, soil and fertilizer at .17¢ per tray, which comes to $9.52 for all 56 trays. That’s $15.52 for 10 and 3/4 pounds of fresh veg that you would end up paying $269 for if you were to purchase it at the grocery store.

IF you can find them locally.

#6.  Not a lot of equipment

Aside from the seed and some soil, you really don’t need anything special to get started growing your own shoots. You could even cut the bottoms off milk jugs and avoid the cost of trays, and the other supplies you likely already have in your kitchen: measuring cups and spoons, a small sieve for straining seed, and a small watering can─but even a soda bottle could be improvised in a pinch.

#7.  Organic

You are in control when it comes to growing your shoots. You can use a soil mix that is free from synthetic chemical fertilizers, use natural and organic fertilizers, and produce your own organic greens at a fraction of the price that you would pay at the farmers’ market.

#8.  Small space

It requires very little space to grow shoots to supplement your family’s diet. For 5 trays, depending on their size, it might take 2 feet of space. And for the first four days they should be in the dark, so it’s totally cool to stash them in a kitchen cupboard, a dresser drawer or a closet shelf. After that the trays need a sunny window-spot, but if your windowsills are not deep enough to accommodate the trays it’s super easy to fix a shelf in a window, or simply set the trays on an end table near the window.

#9.  Variety

variety of shoots
A mix of shoots grown by Edible Flower Power of New Zealand. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram!

There are so many different kinds of shoots and sprouts to choose from, and so much you can do with them that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get caught eating “the same old thing” ever again.

Grow a myriad of brassicas, grow mustards, legumes like peas, leafy things like buckwheat. Eat salads til they’re coming out your ears, put shoots on a sandwich, use them to make soup stock, add them to ramen or a stir-fry. Get creative with shoots!

Check out the selection of shoots and sprouts available at Johnny’s Selected Seeds!

#10.  Nurturing

Growing your own shoots and sprouts is an act of love and caring. You’re caring for something living, green and growing at a time of the year when cold and snow prohibit plant growth. Largely though, it’s caring for ourselves and the people we share our lives with. By feeding ourselves better food we’re nurturing our bodies and our spirits, and that’s every bit as important as saving money on the grocery bill─maybe even more so.

#11.  Supports a plant-based diet

Health experts agree that a diet consisting primarily of plants can significantly reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. While I’m not here to convert you to vegetarianism, I am an advocate for a diet consisting of less meat, and especially less process foods. I believe that eating more vegetables and fruits is better for my body and my long-term health, as well as for the health of my children and those I care about.

#12.  Better for the environment

Not only is a plant-based diet better for our bodies, it’s better for the planet too! Agricultural production of meat is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as contributing to water and soil pollution. Monocultures are depleting soil nutrients and require the use of pesticides that are in turn killing insects and other wildlife. Growing shoots ourselves offers next to no impact on the planet, while providing our families with superior food.

#13.  Reduces dependence on the industrialized food system

Locally caught bass on a bed of shoots with sourdough bread.

Growing our own food offers us independence from industrialized agriculture. It’s an incredibly powerful way of making a statement. The government is slow to make changes, and many in positions of power have been swayed by the influence of money to believing that this chemically intensive food system is OK. Yet the system is a broken one, causing harm to the planet, the animals─even to ourselves. Industrialized farming is not only destroying the soil required to grow food, it’s polluting our water and air. The resulting production of processed food products are spreading chronic illness throughout the population.

Note: To learn more about the industrialized agricultural system currently in place, how it came to be and how you can help bring about change, read: Vote With Your Fork to Save our Broken Food System.

This is one situation however, where we have the power in our very own hands to change things.

3 times a day we can vote for the kind of food system we want. Simply by making conscious choices when it comes to food─opting to purchase organic food, or local food, and by learning once again to do it ourselves. When we stop spending our hard earned money on those processed products or factory-farmed meats we’re reducing the demand for those products. Imagine if we all just said “No” and no one was buying those things anymore. There would no longer be money to be made that way and the suits profiting from industrial ag would finally be forced to change. Afterall money talks, right?

Be Part of the Winter Growing Challenge!!!

Geez, I guess I got up on my soap-box for a bit there with number 13 huh? I’m not going to apologize though. Food is such an elemental part of our lives─like water, air, a roof and clothing─food is essential to life. And yet, at the same time, food is so much more.

Through food we have cultivated humanity: community, family and tradition all center around food. Food is also our connection to the Earth and the creatures living in coexistence on this planet with us. We don’t need to wait for the government to make the changes we want to see in the food system. We have the power to make those changes in our own lives and to inspire others to follow suit. We can be the change we want to see in our lives. Be the change; grow shoots with me this winter and be a part of the Winter Growing Challenge. Together we can do more.

There are lots of great reasons why you should take up the Winter Growing Challenge with me. I’ve given you 13, if you see another leave a comment below to share with others!

13 reasons to grow your own shoots

Winter Growing Challenge!

pea shoot salad_winter growing cahllenge

Announcing Runamuk’s Winter Growing Challenge 2017!

winter growing challenge
Eat your greens all winter long by growing your own shoots and sprouts! Photo credit to: Backyardfarm.co

The further I travel along this road toward an increasingly sustainable lifestyle, the more I learn about food and good health. I want to provide my family with healthy fare so they can reach their full potential─that was the reason I started gardening in the first place. I’ve learned to feed my children from the garden during the summer, to store and preserve the harvest for the winter, and we’ve learned to eat less meat, and less processed foods. But nothing beats the health benefits of eating fresh greens, so I’ve been working to increase our family’s access to those nutrient-dense greens all year.

winter growing at runamuk
Crops growing under row-cover.

Those who have been following along with Runamuk’s story know that I’ve extended my growing season by using row-cover and greenhouse film on a couple of my garden beds. The plan is to be able to harvest from that all winter this year, and so we’ve sown a variety of cold-hardy greens including kale, tatsoi, radishes, spinach, mizuna and a lettuce mix for good measure.

In addition to that I’ve decided to take up the Winter Growing Challenge and I’m planning on growing shoots and sprouts this winter to further supplement our family’s available greens. I’m inviting you to follow along with our progress as we make space in our kitchen this winter for trays of green veg and jars of tender sprouts. Learn how easy it can be to grow your own food; then gather your courage to try it too. We can do this together.

Note: To learn more about our food system and the immediate impact each and every one of us can have on it, read this article I wrote: Vote With Your Fork to Save our Broken Food System.

What is the Winter Growing Challenge?

I, Sam(antha) Burns─farmer, beekeeper, gardener, blogger, and Mom to 2 rowdy young men-to-be─challenge myself to grow more food this winter. I am challenging myself to  grow shoots and sprouts in order to provide the most healthful and nutrient-dense diet I can, on my limited budget, and in tight quarters.

Join me in taking up the Winter Growing Challenge, grow more food this winter to feed your family fresh veg for a healthier and more sustainable, self-sufficient life.

Who Can Play?

winter growing challenge_pea shoots
Pea shoots grown by Magic Valley Greens n Things.

Anyone!!! From the homesteader or the home gardener, to the individual who has never grown anything before─I’m inviting you to follow along with my Winter Growing Challenge, learn from my adventures (and misadventures) and give it a go. Grow your own shoots and sprouts this winter, share pictures of your tender green shoots to Instagram to share your excitement. Post to Facebook your recipes for creative new ways to use your fresh greens; share your experiences and encourage others around you to take up the Winter Growing Challenge too!

When & Where?

For 3 months, beginning the first week of December and running through February, I will be posting that story once a week for you to follow here on the Runamuk blog. There will be new how-to articles that I hope will inspire you to give growing shoots a try, as well as recipes, and links to resources to help you grow your own fresh greens this winter. I’d recommend you subscribe to receive new posts from Runamuk directly in your in-box so that you don’t miss a thing!

Up-coming giveaway???

I see another giveaway in our future! To help other home gardeners get started with growing your own greens this winter, I want to give a few of you the gift of a pound of pea seed for shoots from Johnny’s Selected Seeds! Check back soon for the details on that!

Let’s Do This!

pea shoot salad_winter growing cahllenge
Delicious pea shoot salad grown and prepared by BackyardFarm.co

Nearly 80% of Americans say that sustainability is a priority to them. People are waking up to the pervasive financialization of the food system and the dangers of a diet made up of processed foods. We are increasingly opting to purchase organic or locally grown or grass-fed. More and more households are choosing to cultivate gardens in their backyards, and urban farming is on the rise. Growing our own shoots and sprouts during the winter is just one more way we can improve our own self-sufficiency. It’s one more way we can take a stand against the corporate consumer-based system, and one more way we can eat healthier for a long and happy life.

Join me! Follow along with my Winter Growing Challenge 2017! Leave a comment below if you want to play along!

winter growing challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2 – Adapt your farming practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3 – Provide additional habitat

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

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

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

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

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

Start today!

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

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