Happening at Runamuk in 2019

runamuk queen

Some pretty exciting stuff’s happening at Runamuk in the 2019 growing season: new gardens, new growing structures, upcoming events, and even more critters! Farmers across the state are gearing up for the coming season and I’ve dropped to 2 days per week in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected seeds. I’m back on the farm full-time, with a long list of chores and projects to prepare Runamuk for the impending 2019 growing season. There’s a lot going on, so go get yourself a cuppa coffee or tea, and sit down with me for a few minutes to read all about it.

Traditionally, following my end-of-year review (click here to read my 2018 review), I post the farm-plan for the upcoming season, but this year─between my responsibilities on the farm and my 4 days per week at Johnny’s, I have not had the time to do that. Dedicated readers to the Runamuk blog may recall that I’m a big advocate for a good 5-year plan; last year I laid out the details of my plan for Runamuk at it’s new #foreverfarm─right before I found out that the Swinging Bridge Farm was a no-go. Feel free view that 5-year plan here, but keep in mind it’s been modified to suit the property at the Hive House.

Our first year at this new and permanent location was about settling in, establishing the infrastructure and livestock accommodations that we require to operate, and preparing the garden for planting. Even with only half a season last year, we managed to do those things and Runamuk is now set up and ready to dive headlong into the 2019 growing season.

Garden, Orchard & Soil

This year is largely about the garden, and I intentionally did not invest money into expanding the apiary so that I could use those funds for the garden, orchard plants, and in-puts for soil remediation.

cover crop
Garden cover-crop October 2018.

If you recall, I cover-cropped and expanded the existing vegetable garden last fall, so that I now have a space approximately 60′ wide and nearly 100′ long. The Runamuk garden is something of a cross between an intensive market-garden and a homestead production-garden─to feed my family and a few others. As soon as the snow is gone and my soil is workable, I’ll be out prepping beds and starting the first crops: peas, greens, brassicas, onions and potatoes.

Establishing perennials is at the top of my list: apple trees, blueberries, raspberries, and a long list of perennial flowers and herbs are going in the ground here. I sent in my Fedco order back in February, and I’m eagerly awaiting their big tree sale to go pick up my plants (check out this post about the Fedco Tree Sale that I wrote a couple years ago), and perhaps get a few more on sale (when I say “perhaps”, I really mean “definitely” lol). I’ve also started many of my own perennial herb and flower seedlings─things like echinacea, yarrow, lovage, coreopsis, mint, lavender and catnip, to name a few─since it’s much cheaper to buy seed and raise these plants myself than it would be to purchase them as young plants at a nursery.

Improving soil health is a top priority, and I’ve devised a strategy for the 2-acre plot between the farmhouse and the back-field that includes frost-sowing a cover-crop of clover, and then rotating the sheep and chickens across the earth. A soil test is also on my list of things to do, but the biggest garden-project this season comes in the form of an NRCS High-Tunnel.

NRCS High-Tunnel!

That’s right! The NRCS has officially designated funds for a high-tunnel at Runamuk Acres! Yaaaaaaaaaay!

For those who are unfamiliar with high-tunnels, they are unheated greenhouses constructed with aluminum emt conduit bent into high hoops and then covered with greenhouse plastic. The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) offers financial assistance for installation of such a growing structure.

I had submitted the application with the NRCS last summer on a whim─I wasn’t even sure I wanted a high-tunnel! That’s a big structure to erect and maintain by myself! What’s more, the NRCS only pays you after construction is completed, so the farmer has to come up with the funds initially, and after buying the farm and making the investments needed to get up and running at this location, I’m financially tapped out until Runamuk comes up to speed.

But it was an opportunity, and I firmly believe that “We miss 100% of the chances we don’t take.”

So I submitted the application, but doubted I’d be approved─vegetable production was a very small part of my plan; surely the NRCS would find other candidates more suitable than an operation geared toward pollinator conservation?

Apparently someone thought Runamuk was very suitable indeed.

I admit that the site is fairly ideal: flat, level ground that drains well, with easy access to water and electricity. Yet it still came as a surprise when Nick Pairitz at the Somerset County NRCS office called to tell me that Runamuk had been approved for a tunnel.

Initially I was rather dismayed; a high-tunnel is a much larger project than anything I’ve ever done, and I am just one person─one woman. Yet, as tender seedlings fill the Alternate Living Room, spilling over onto our enclosed Porch, I can’t deny the benefits of such a growing structure would offer this farmer.

I recalled old Tom Eickenberg, recent retiree from Johnny’s, made it a point once to tell me that he’d put his high-tunnel up on his own, just to see if it could be done, and he’d assured me that day that he believed I could do the same (thank you for believing in me, Tom!!!). And so, I took a deep breath and signed the paperwork. Runamuk will have it’s high-tunnel.

Increased Wholesale Production

After 6 years attending the Madison Farmers’ Market, I’ve decided that my time would be better served by focusing on distributing our products wholesale to established retailers. It was an incredibly tough decision for me to leave the Madison Farmers’ Market, but now that I have a #foreverfarm, I’ve become keenly aware of where my energy is going. It’s a lot for one person to manage, and I cannot yet give up my part-time job at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which limits my on-farm days, and having parental responsibilities is even further restricting. I have to be very careful with my time.

The farmers’ market essentially takes 2 days from my work-week─1 day to prepare product, and another day at market. Johnny’s takes another 2 days. I began to realize last summer that 3 days on the farm was not going to be enough. The point was really driven home, though, when my schedule at Johnny’s increased to 4 long days per week during the Call Center’s busy season. The farm requires more than 3 days per week from me at this point, and if I’m going to grow Runamuk into the kind of educational center that I’ve envisioned, I need to eventually not be at Johnny’s. At all.

Note: To all my Johnny’s peeps who are reading this─don’t panic, that’s still a year or 2 out. I’ll be in the office for my next shift. I promise.

organic eggs
Organic and grass-fed, farm-fresh eggs from Runamuk!

I’ve decided to focus exclusively on wholesale distribution and have assembled a list of retailers I’m hoping to work with. Runamuk’s product list includes our beeswax soaps, herbal salves, candles, uncertified-organic non-gmo eggs, and we will soon have fresh vegetables to offer, as well as raw honey (harvested at the end of July and in September). If you, or someone you know, would be interested in selling Runamuk’s products, email to request our Wholesale Product List for pricing information.

Farmstand

Initially the plan was simply to convert the frame of a pop-up garage into a hoop-house for seedling production and sell bee-friendly plants right out front through the month of May. Now, with the new tunnel coming, and increased vegetable production in the garden, I’ve decided that the porch should be converted into a casual farmstand. To that end, I’m looking for a used refrigerator to hold eggs and vegetables, and I’m considering options for a display of other farm goods, too.

I’m not sure how well a farmstand will go over here in New Portland, but I’m actually only 11 minutes from Kingfield, and route 16 practically goes right by the farmhouse. I’m hoping that with a little promotion (and some creative and colorful signage), I can attract a few locals, and some of the tourists that travel up and down this main thoroughfare.

Beginning in May, the farmstand will be open Thursday through Saturday 8am to 4pm. While it won’t be staffed, operating on the honor-system, I do plan to be largely on the farm those 3 days and I’ll be available to answer questions or offer assistance to customers.

Classes & Workshops

They’re back! On-farm classes and workshops for skill-sharing; I’m offering day-long workshops on beekeeping, as well as classes on bee-friendly farming, basic construction, and gardening for beginners.

There’s plenty of space here, so if you’re interested in participating, but are “from away”, don’t hesitate to email me to inquire about bringing your tent or RV to camp out back.

Check out our Classes & Workshops page to get more details on the programs Runamuk offers.

Selling Bees!

At long last Runamuk has bees available for local beekeepers to purchase! This is a pretty monumental milestone for me and it feels appropriate that it coincides with our first growing season at our #foreverfarm. Even still, it’s hard for me to part with them, lol, and I admit that I would not do so if I did not need the space for this season’s splits and new Queens.

runamuk queen
Runamuk Queens are a cross between Carnolian and Russian genetics that I’ve found to work well here in Maine.

Last season was my second attempt at Queen-rearing and I produced 35 viable Maine Queens from my own stock of carnolian and Russian honeybees. I used those new Queens to replace every single Queen in my apiary, and made as many nucs as possible in hopes of overwintering them. I filled up every bit of equipment available to me, and Runamuk went into winter with 32 hives. It was not an easy winter for the bees, however most of Runamuk’s colonies came through looking strong. If I had wanted to, I could have bought equipment, housed each of these nucs myself and significantly increased the size of my apiary. But because I chose to invest in the garden and orchard this season instead of the apiary, I need to maintain the apiary as it is.

I did not promote it loudly as I have a very limited number of colonies that I’m willing to part with, and I knew the market’s demand would far surpass Runamuk’s supply. Indeed, the 10 overwintered nucs that I had available have already been spoken for and deposits taken.

There’s still opportunity to get a “Spring Nuc” from Runamuk though, or to get your name on the list for one of my Maine-raised mated or un-mated Queens. Check out Our Bees for details and reserve yours today.

More sheep!

The sheep have grown on me, and I really enjoy having them on the farm. Following Miracle’s death, I’ve come to realize that I definitely need more than 2, but I’m pretty adamant about not having more than 5. I see sheep as an integral component in my strategies for improving soil health here at Runamuk, as well a manageable source of meat for my family and a few others.

And so we have the new ram, whom I’ve dubbed Ghirardelli, like the bittersweet dark chocolate, and the new ewe coming soon, and Jack, the wether who’s coming from my friends, Ken and Kamala Hahn. I’m pretty excited at the thought of the new sheep babies we’ll have here at this time next year!

First broilers on pasture

This season I’ll raise my first-ever broilers on pasture─that’s a pretty big deal in my book.

The idea is to put some meat in my freezer, but the broilers tie in well with my ambitions to improve the soil here through rotational grazing. 50 freedom rangers that will be shipped to the farm in July.

Friends have already volunteered to help slaughter and process the birds, and they’re happy enough to be paid in the form of grass-fed, organic chicken for their own freezer. I find it highly satisfying to be able to share such good food with the people I care about.

Camping at Runamuk

Tucked just inside the forest at the far end of Runamuk’s back-field, I’ll eek out two campsites for potential guests to the farm, and travelers seeking adventure in Maine’s Bigelow Mountain Region. A dirt drive runs through the middle of the field, making access by vehicle easy enough, and the ground is level─ideal for tents, but I can also host campers and RVs (though I have no intention of setting up an RV park).

I’ve created a listing for Runamuk on Hipcamp. Hipcamp is an online service connecting travelers seeking campsites with private property owners offering accommodations in a wide array of settings: ranches, vineyards, treehouses, yurts, backcountry campsites, cabins, air streams, glamping tents and more. If you can think it up, someone somewhere probably has those unique accommodations for you.

I’m picturing a picnic table and fire-pit at each campsite, a shared pit-toilet tucked in the back, out of the way, and an outdoor shower if I can manage to devise one. The wooden platform that I hauled out of the coop last summer will become a tent platform at one of the sites.

There will be signs, and some creative touches of whimsy; I want camping at Runamuk to be magical and special. Life is happening here; I want visitors to notice and walk away with a good feeling and good memories of this special little bee-friendly farm in the mountains of western Maine .

maine mountains
The Bigelow Mountain Region of western Maine.

There are a lot of positives about our location here in New Portland, but the fact is─we’re half an hour from the nearest “city”; most people probably drive through the village of North New Portland and don’t even realize it’s a town. Typically, travelers pass through on their way north or south; rarely is New Portland the destination. I plan to put New Portland on the map with my conservation farm, and I’m hoping the on-site accommodations make it easier for people from away to come and visit.

Ready to Go

As you can see, we’ve got a lot of things happening at Runamuk this 2019 season. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work on my part, but I’m ready to go. Everything I have done, every move I have made─has been to bring me here to this place at this point in time. I’m ready to do the work to grow Runamuk into the conservation farm that I’ve always envisioned. But even I can admit when I might need a little help (though admitting I need help is easier than asking for it, lol).

I’ve had a few offers of help from friends that I intend to call in for bigger projects like the chicken-processing and skinning the high-tunnel, but I’m thinking it may be prudent to organize a spring work-party too. Historically, I have more seedlings than I can manage in the spring and I’ll find myself scrambling in late June to get as many of the remaining plants in the ground as possible before they perish. Now that we finally have a permanent location, I’m growing copious numbers of perennial flowers and herbs to be planted here for the bees and beneficial insects. I may need help to get them all in the ground and─if you ask me─a “Spring Planting Party” sounds like a really great time. I’ll set a date and get back to you on it.

Now if only it would stop snowing so that spring could finally come….

Thanks for following along with our story! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your inbox; OR follow us on Instagram for a glimpse at the day-to-day activities on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

2018 Year-End Review

2018 top 9

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

The Runamuk Apiary

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

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

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

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

Farm & Garden

apiary apprenticeships
The laying flock working the garden.

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

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

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

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

Personally

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Lessons Learned 2018

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

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

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

Level-Up

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

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

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

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

 

Anxiety in the Home-Stretch

I fully admit that I have been suffering an increasing level of anxiety and stress during this home-stretch of buying a farm. The USDA’s program for beginning farmers seeking to finance the purchase of a property for farming is a grueling process and since passing the 200th Day it’s become more difficult for me─largely because the delay is causing quite an upheaval in both my farming operations and my family-life. It was a relief to receive word on Monday that the Appraisal of the Hive-House has finally been scheduled, and will occur on Friday, May 11th at 11. Once that report comes in next week, Closing should follow within a couple of weeks. Yaaaaay!

The FSA’s financing process reminds me a little of a video game, in that─you can’t advance to the next level until you have successfully completed the level before it. Each step in the FSA’s process is crucial to advancement and to reaching Closing Day, and it’s not over until you’ve signed those papers and received the keys to your new farm. My whole experience with the Swinging Bridge Farm taught me a valuable lesson.

I suppose having to go through this process twice has contributed considerably to my current state of perpetual tension. This all would have been over months ago if I hadn’t bet on the wrong horse the first time, but I’ve been much more careful this time around and I’m confident we will soon be scheduling Closing Day.

That knowledge does little to assuage my anxiety regarding Closing though…. So much hinges on this property sale that it almost chokes me up to think about it. My kids need this home. I need this home; Runamuk has reached a point where I don’t feel I can continue to farm without adequate infrastructure and a permanent home-base. My days as a landless farmer have reached their limits.

What’s more─buying a farm and moving a farm are similar to buying a home and moving a family, but way more intense because there’s livestock and farm equipment involved. And because in order to keep my farm income coming in so that I can pay this new mortgage I’ll soon have─I need to ensure that the farming continues even through the move.

To top it all off, there are a few nay-sayers in my midst who can’t seem to fathom how anyone could possibly buy property on an income generated from farming and have deemed my plan destined for failure. That’s just insulting; I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I didn’t have some idea what I’m doing! And besides─my loan has already been approved: TWICE!

I look forward to proving the nay-sayers wrong, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Before the 200th Day I wasn’t necessarily counting the days to Closing, I was just keeping a tally of the process; but once I passed day 200 I began counting. This has been a long process for me and my family, and I am mentally drained and exhausted. With the tension mounting in the home-stretch, I find some consolation in knowing I made it through all the days before today, and I will get through today too.

I am no stranger to anxiety, and have been careful to take care of myself: watching my caffeine in-take, drinking herbal teas, taking Valerian capsules twice a day, getting fresh air, spending time with friends, playing my banjo and drinking beer or wine (all things in moderation!), and most of all─keeping busy.

With my first farmers’ market of the 2018 season happening on Saturday, the same day my first round of new bees are scheduled to arrive, and then 50 new pullets to go pick up Sunday evening─Runamuk’s farm season is about to kick off with a bang this weekend, so keeping busy is not a problem. There’s equipment to prep for both bees and chickens, soap to make, soap to wrap for market, a new sign to make to hang in the Runamuk booth at market─not to mention I need to assemble all of the things that go to market with me: tables, tent, shelving and display pieces…the list goes on and on. Keeping busy is no problem at all, lol.

Once the Appraisal comes in Closing should happen within 2-3 weeks, so we’re really close now! Check back soon for another update from the farm, and be sure to tune in to Facebook Live to watch me sign that mortgage contract on Closing Day!

Chimney Inspection & Appraisal Done!

moose sentry

The FSA hasn’t assigned a date for Closing on the sale of the Swinging Bridge Farm yet, but I can feel that day drawing closer. So far I’ve managed to overcome every hurdle, jump through every hoop set out for me. Last week I got the chimney inspection done, and just yesterday the property was assessed by the Appraisor─the final obstacle in the FSA’s long and drawn out loan process. If I had to wager on it, I’d guess Closing will take place in early February. OMG!

moose sentry
This mounted moose head stands guard in the woodshed at the Swinging Bridge Farm.

The New Portland farm had been winterized back in the fall─the water had been turned off and all of the pipes associated with the plumbing had been flushed to prevent them from breaking. There’s no heat running, and the electricity is off. The old farmhouse is sitting there waiting as patiently for me, as I am for it.

Because none of the utilities are currently running, the FSA opted to waive the inspections of those systems, and instead Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent working on my case, spoke with various contractors who had worked on the place over the last decade. He extrapolated from those conversations the conditions of the electric, plumbing, and heating systems and documented it for the FSA’s records.

That just left me responsible for the chimney inspection.

I waited til after the holidays were finished before setting about tracking down someone to do the job, and then it took several attempts to get someone on the line. Did you know that a volunteer fire department can’t inspect your chimney? After contacting the local Madison Fire Department and learning they couldn’t help me, I reached out to the Skowhegan Fire Department and several chimney sweeps before Percy York of Skowhegan finally agreed to do the job for me.

Percy York was an older gentleman, perhaps in his seventies, shorter and squat, barrel-chested and a little bow-legged. We met in Madison and he followed me up to SBF last Wednesday. Upon arrival he got down out of his truck to join me in the driveway, grumpily announcing, “I thot we was never gonna git he-ah!”

I laughed it off good-naturedly, but he reiterated, “If I’d known it was this far out I never would have taken the job.”

I had warned him on the phone that it was located in New Portland, though I suppose the address might actually be considered part of “West New Portland”. Regardless he was there and so I just thanked him sincerely for trucking way out there for me and told him I had the $50 cash we’d agreed on if he still wanted to look at the chimney.

He did look at the chimney─both of them. There are 2 chimneys at SBF: the original chimney, which runs straight up through the center of the main house, and a newer chimney Mr. Fletcher (previous owner) had had installed in the summer-kitchen/woodshed end of the house. The new chimney is fairly pristine, since Mr. Fletcher had scarcely used the thing, but the old one has been sealed up and is no longer usable. In fact, the brick of that old chimney is crumbling with age, and will likely need to be removed in the next 10 years.

Mr. York, the chimney sweep, also pointed out that the existing woodstove attached to the newer chimney wasn’t air tight and should either be re-sealed, or the woodstove should be replaced. As well as the fact that I would need a hearth pad. I had suspected as much.

There’s a secondary heat source at SBF─a propane-fueled monitor heater. However I still want the use of a woodstove, so I’ll be on the hunt for a second-hand woodstove. If you’re a local reader and can hook me up with a good deal on a solid woodstove, feel free to drop me a line!

The Appraisal however, was not my responsibility. That was done at the request of the FSA, and could have taken up to 3 months to get the necessary report, which is crucial to the loan-request. As a federal office, the FSA has to recruit an outside contractor for an unbiased assessment of the property. The government will not pay one penny more than the actual value of the property, so the price I agreed to pay for it has to be equal to or greater than what this appraisor values the place at. If his appraisal come in lower than that $174.5 I agreed to, it could very well be the end of the road for me. I would have to hope that the Seller would renegotiate with me, or I could try to secure a secondary micro-loan to make up the difference.

In a surprising twist, the appraisal job was award within just a couple of weeks of being open to public bids. The job went to one Jarrett Goold with Farm Credit East. He met Leah Watkins (my spunky and awesome realtor) and myself at SBF yesterday to conduct his inspection, and set about his business with clipboard and camera in hand.

He paused to ask questions about various features: which chimney was the good one, whether or not the old house was insulated, what kind of flooring ran through the house, was there dry wall or was it all plaster? how many bedrooms did I consider the place to be (There’s an open landing at the top of the stairs that could be considered a living or storage space. I intend to use it as a bedroom though, which means it will be a 4-bedroom house.)?

Mr. Goold scoped out the newer poured-cement foundation and the sill that old Mr. Fletcher had had replaced under the main structure of the house, the water heater, and the old double-hung windows. Then Leah and I showed him the attached woodshed and the inside of the barn, where some of the old beams had been replaced to shore the thing up.

Before we parted ways, Mr. Goold shared with us that the land alone, with it’s 150 acres of mature tree growth, was worth nearly what I’d agreed to pay for the property. That meant that once he figured the house into it, his appraisal should come in at or above that $174.5 figure. What a relief it was to hear him say so!

He told us he’d have the report in to the FSA by next week.

Once the Appraisal is in, then it’s time for the Lawyers. I’ve asked Ernie Hilton to do the legal work on my behalf. If you’ve been following along, you might recall that Ernie and Gwen Hilton have supported my ambitions from the very start. They’ve hosted my apiary on their property for years, have been devout patrons for Runamuk and the Madison Farmers’ Market, hosted my FarmRaiser party in their fantabulous old barn there in Starks, and have been pillars of wisdom, inspiration and support for me. It seemed only fitting that Ernie should be the one to represent me in this transaction of a lifetime.

Ernie will have to research the property title, draw up the contract, and coordinate with the FSA the Closing on this sale. I think it’s fairly safe to say we will be Closing sometime in February. That’s just a few weeks away!

Something amazing is about to happen so stay tuned! And then watch Runamuk grow! Subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly in your inbox so that you’ll never miss a thing!

Shortest Day; Longest Night

winter solstice 2017

The Earth’s orbit around the sun has brought us once more to this─the shortest day and the longest night─the Winter Solstice. For all of Earth’s creatures, nothing is so fundamental as the length of daylight. It drives warmth, weather, and life itself on our planet.

Today we know that the solstice is an astronomical occurrence, caused by the Earth’s tilt on its axis, and its motion in orbit around the sun. It is this tilt that causes winter and summer, and at the December solstice the northern hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun, so we experience a late sunrise and an early sunset. The shortest day and longest night.

The Winter Solstice has been celebrated in cultures around the world for thousands of years. It is the start of the solar new year, a celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun. In old Europe, the festival was known as Yule, from the Norse word “jul”, meaning wheel, and the celebration lasted.

To tell you the truth, observing ancient holidays has been instrumental in my growth─both as an individual and as a farmer. Learning to revel in the changing of the seasons, to celebrate the Wheel of the Year─has allowed me a heightened awareness of the natural processes happening all around me. What began as a way to avoid a disgustingly over-commercialized holiday, has led me to a deeper spiritual connection to the Earth.

The Winter Solstice offers us a bright new start, filled with new hope and possibilities. With love and family, steeped in tradition, the Winter Solstice rejoices in the returning of light to the land. It only makes sense that those messages should resonate with a farmer such as I.

My recent victory in obtaining the approval of the FSA on my loan request has given me special cause to celebrate this year. After 8 years working toward this goal, building up my operation year after year, overcoming the set backs and failures to arrive at this point, the joy I feel is exquisite, and I am savoring it completely.

Runamuk’s community of supporters have rejoiced with me. Friends, family, market patrons, colleagues and community members all say “Congratulations, Sam!” From the closest of close friends, to acquaintances I scarcely know, the elation they all feel after following this story for so very long is sweet and wonderful. They are all part of Runamuk, for they have been there through it all, and I am so glad to share it with them. There’s enough joy to go around lol.

winter solstice 2017Last night I burned my very own beeswax candles as the long dark descended. It was symbolic─representing the spark of life that lingers on even in the darkest hours, even in the longest of nights. It lays dormant, waiting, ready to return when the time is right.

We are all like that light. Or at least we can be─if we so choose. There’s a spark in all of us that can illuminate the path we are destined to take. That spark can bring light and love into your life, fill you up and spill over onto the people around you. It’s infectious. I’ve seen first hand how learning to love oneself, and being true to the real you can fill your life with abundance and joy, creating a ripple effect throughout your entire community. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. What a gift to give!

I’m so glad you’re here to participate in Runamuk’s story! In a couple of months we’ll close on the purchase of the Swinging Bridge Farm and the #GreatFarmMove #theFinalChapter is penciled on the calendar for the end of April. All that’s happened so far on our journey was only the Prologue in an epic tale; new adventures await on the horizon! Be sure to subscribe by email so that you never miss an update!

Happy Holidays from all of us here at Runamuk Acres!

Winter looming

amaranth

With the FSA’s monster loan application submitted for review, and the FarmRaiser party behind us, all focus has turned toward preparing for the winter looming ahead of us. The unseasonable warmth we’ve experienced so far this fall can be deceiving, but make no mistake─winter will come to Maine. When it does I intend to be ready.

Over the years I have adopted a series of personal deadlines for winter preparations. By the end of October I like to have my car winterized, housing tightened down, heating organized, livestock in their winter accommodations, and the majority of farm equipment put away. By Thanksgiving I want to have candy boards on the beehives, and any remaining farm or homestead equipment stowed away safe from snow and ice.

The Apiary

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

The unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing here in the northeast this fall is not great for bees. Bees do not hibernate through the winter. They cluster tightly together around their Queen, shivering their bodies and wings to generate heat as they revolve about her. They are awake and active inside their hives, but are not working nearly so hard as they do in the summer. As a result they consume much less food when it is cold. When the weather remains warm into the fall and winter the bees stay more active, eating up honey stores that would otherwise remain untouched til mid-winter.

In mid-September the fall honey harvest was taken off the hives. The bees continued to bring in nectar and pollen for another 2-3 weeks, finishing uncapped honey that will feed their colonies through the winter. Hives that were light on stores were given additional frames of honey, and fed 2:1 sugar-syrup using a top-feeder on the inner cover.

Mouse-guards and entrance reducers were installed early in September before the field mice began looking for winter dens. For a late-October mite treatment of oxalic acid (derived from the stinging nettle plant) I’ve scheduled to borrow a vaporizer from a beekeeping buddy. Then in November we will make candy-boards, and any white hives in my apiary will be wrapped with tar-paper before my Thanksgiving deadline. The darker painted hives and the unpainted wooden hives I no longer wrap in the winter.

Even with the unseasonable fall, it’s getting to be the time of year that beekeepers dread most. The colder months are hardest on bee colonies, and too cold to allow the beekeeper to work with them. Already we are shutting hives down. I am anxiously reviewing the season─did I do enough? How many of the colonies will survive? What could I have done better? Of course we won’t know til we’re on the other side of winter.

Garden

The garden is in a state of transition. The summer crops are mostly finished in our small homestead garden. We’ve harvested and eaten zucchini and yellow summer squash til it was coming out our ears. We had a harvest of green beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, a number of pie pumpkins, and a respectable crate-full of winter squashes of varying sizes.

amaranth
Paul grew Amaranth this year, which was new to me. The leafy greens reminded me of spinach and chard, and it grows well all summer─no bolting. I quickly fell for Amaranth!

It was interesting to see which crops thrived in the sandy soil, compared to those who only tolerated it and those that did altogether poorly. The carnival squash did exceptionally well in our dry, sandy soil and I got a half dozen of this variety grown to an impressive cantaloupe-size. While the butternut and acorn squashes produced a number of fruits, but all undersized for these varieties. My favorite winter sweet kubocha squash fared the worst, only producing 2 “miniature” squashes, one not bigger than a baseball.

This is where working part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds can sometimes yield unexpected blessings. I had the opportunity earlier this week to accompany a colleague to the Johnny’s research farm. Not once, but twice in 2 days!─I went to harvest produce for our office-bound co-workers. We harvested bushels of paste tomatoes and beautiful bright colored sweet peppers on Monday afternoon. Then on Tuesday afternoon we went to harvest winter squashes. Thanks to Johnny’s I scored an extra bushel of paste tomatoes, and 3 bushels of winter squashes.

Determined to continue to grow food into the fall and winter, I’ve sown 2 raised beds with cold-hardy crops sown using Johnny’s Fall Harvest Planting Calculator. Timing the sowing of crops for fall and winter harvest is particularly crucial, since they need to reach at least 75% maturity before the start of the Persephone Period (the point at which the day-length drops below 10 hours in duration).

In one bed I have beets, kale, bok choi, hakeuri turnips, radishes, and a couple of heads of lettuce. In the other I have lettuce mix, lots of tatsoi, radishes, spinach, and mizuna.

I was caught a little by surprise by our first frost. It was only thanks to a colleague’s warning on facebook that Paul and I were able to scurry out to the garden in the waning daylight to cover the beds I wanted to save. By the light of a headlamp we snatched the remainding tomatoes and peppers off the plants. Predictably the cucurbits, the nightshades and many other tender plants were wiped out first thing.

Since then, I’ve been preparing those 2 fall and winter-harvest beds for the next inevitable frost. Many commercial growers use the metal EMT-conduit and a simple bender to make hoops that span the bed and covered with agribon to create “low-tunnels”. Since I am no longer growing for market, but to feed myself and my family, I decided it wasn’t worth the expense of time and money to buy the EMT and borrow a bender to make a dozen hoops. I opted to use a tried-and-true method and went for 1/2-inch CPVC to make my hoops. The agribon I already have on hand; I just need to cut it to length so that I can quickly get it in place in the event of a frost advisory.

Note: This is a method I’ve used for years as a woman farmer. It’s easy enough that it requires little tool-skill, and durable enough that I’m still using the same equipment 5 years later. Check out “How to Build a Mini Hoop-House” for more details!

The Farm

At this point, the “farm” component of Runamuk is comprised of the laying flock of chickens that free-range the property I am currently leasing. Last fall we dramatically reduced the flock numbers in the face of the Great Farm Move. We went from about 90 birds to 40, and then lost another 9 birds during the winter to a series of hungry mink. I bought 10 layers in the spring, and then we received another 12 from the Magoons at Willow Lane Farm.

Since all of the birds are now 2-years or older and are significantly reduced in their production capacity, I’ve decided to send the majority of them to “Freezer Camp” rather than feed them and attempt to protect all of them from predators during the winter.

Older hens tend to be tougher meat, so I don’t sell them to customers, but cooked as stewing birds they feed my family just fine. We will keep 6 to 10 of the youngest, and the rest Paul and I will process sometime in the next couple of weeks. Used sparingly, this meat should feed us through the next year.

Early next spring I intend to purchase 50 started pullets to replenish the flock to have eggs available at the farmers’ market. We’ve decided to transition to non-GMO feed, using scratch grains available at Maine Grains in Skowhegan; it’s exciting for me to raise my birds on grain grown right here in the state.

Homestead

We’re facing another winter in this unfinished trailer. Even if the FSA will finance the Swinging Bridge Farm, the closing date won’t be scheduled til February or March due to the backlog that government office is facing. That means the Final Chapter of the Great Farm Move likely won’t happen til after mud season next year. I’m determined to make the best of things this winter.

changing of the cars
The “new” Forester on the left, and my retired Outback on the right.

Transportation: Experience has taught me the value of properly preparing my vehicle for the winter. Here in Maine we’ve been known to get snow in early November, and there’s nothing worse than driving in slick conditions in an unprepared vehicle. I like to have any major work to my vehicle taken care of well in advance of October, and good tires on the thing no later than Halloween.

Recently my trusted mechanic, Luke Vigneault (of Luke’s After Hours Auto Repair in Madison), pointed out the holes rusted through the frame of the Subaru Outback I’ve been driving for the last 2 and a half years. He had the old girl up on the lift and pointed a flashlight at the rocker panels, indicating how we could see clear through to the opposite side of his garage. He went on to show how I’d worn out the shocks and struts on every tire (that explains why she bounced all over the road so much lol!). So it was with some sadness that we have replaced the Outback with a Subaru Forester in better condition. All that’s left to do is to take my good snow tires off the Outback and put them on the Forester.

Heating & Housing: I like to have my winter heating squared away and the housing tightened up by the end of October too. Paul has been busy cutting firewood from the surrounding forest, and the woodstove has been cleaned and prepared for use. We bought a pop-up garage to store firewood in to keep it dry, and my 2 boys are collecting sticks and kindling into livestock feed bags to add to the stockpile.

There’s not much to be done for the old trailer we’re currently homesteading in; with plans to eventually move on, we’re reluctant to invest too much money in the old place. We’ll put plastic over the single-pane windows to retain more heat and stop drafts. Aside from that I am grateful for the roof that keeps us dry and the woodstove that will keep us warm this winter.

Preserving the Harvest: The majority of my homestead preparations revolve around food preservation. In such tight quarters I’ve had to get creative with storage─especially food storage. Potatoes, and onions, are stashed in cardboard boxes in the corners of the back bedroom where the kids sleep. This is the furthest space from the woodstove and we were able to keep vegetables this way into the depths of winter last year. The winter squashes are stowed under their dresser on the floor, and I’m pleased to have so many that they are spilling out into the middle of the floor there.

I am exceedingly grateful to have inherited a chest freezer from Jim Murphy, where I’ve found I can store a year’s supply of meat and vegetables. Tomatoes are in the process of becoming sauce, sealed into ziplock bags and put into the freezer. Green beans and most other vegetables have been blanched and stored in the freezer. Raspberries and blackberries we foraged from the surrounding woods are packaged and frozen. I sliced up peaches we scored a deal on through a colleague at Johnny’s who has a connection, froze them on a cookie sheet, then packaged and stored them in the freezer. Apples are next on the list, and once processed the chickens should fill the remaining space in the freezer. It’s a really good feeling to have so much food stored away for the winter.

Conclusion

Likely we won’t know the results of my efforts to secure the Swinging Bridge Farm until sometime around the New Year. Regardless of the outcome, I have a farm and family to take care of and winter looming on the horizon. I cannot sit idly by waiting for the verdict. The whole thing is out of my hands now. I’ve committed myself to the present, to winter preparations and to the upcoming holiday season, which is always good distraction. Soon there will be snow on the ground, and cozied up inside before the crackling woodstove there will be plenty of time to ponder the possibilities that next year might bring.

Thanks for following along with one woman’s journey as a beginning farmer! Stay tuned for more updates coming soon regarding my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm here in central Maine!

Negotiations

mushrooms on an apple tree

If you’ve been anxiously awaiting news regarding my bid for the Swinging Bridge Farm, then I am glad for the company. It has been a long week of negotiations and I had hoped to be able to post with cause for celebration, but as of this moment I cannot say if my offer will be accepted by the landowner.

swinging bridge farm old farmhouse
The Swinging Bridge Farm!

The Offer(s)

The initial offer went out on Monday night for the old cape, the 103 acres it sits on, and the adjoining 49 acres that sit across the road. Leah Watkins, my realtor, suggested I write  a Love Letter for the property to accompany my offer, and as you can imagine I poured myself into that piece of writing in hopes of swaying the landowner to work with me.

Admittedly I went in low, thinking of it as the start of a negotiation process. Paul and I discussed it extensively. We considered the fact that this is not prime farmland─or even prime land for development─given that it is so super rocky. The terrain there is also difficult, being largely uphill on the house side, and on the opposite side of the road the land drops down into a gorge where the little stream that runs through the land spreads out to create a marshy wetland. The house itself is in need of modern updates like windows and doors, a chimney liner, and the roof may or may not be leaking. We offered $132.5K on the first go-round.

It was 36+/- hours of suspense to learn the landowner’s response to our offer. She came back with $183.5K, offering to contribute $4,500 towards closing costs and a promise not to harvest any timber between now and closing. A recent appraisal estimated the value of the property at $179K.

Initially my goal had been to keep my mortgage between $100K and $150K. I’d prefer to keep my debt as low as possible so that I can afford to farm full-time. I’m also very conscious of the fact that if the landowner accepts my offer, I still have to convince the FSA that my business proposal is worth taking a risk on. The more money I ask for, the less likely I am to qualify for financing.

Conferring with Leah, we decided to drop the parcel across the road and made an offer of $142.4K for just the house and the 100-acres it sits on.

Another 36 or so hours passed before we received the landowner’s response. They decided they did not want to split the properties up at this time, and offered the entire 150-acres and the house at $173.5K, with $4500 towards closing costs, but asked for more details regarding when we would know whether or not we qualify for the FSA financing.

The USDA’s FSA process is definitely a little confusing. It’s a little backwards. They don’t have a pre-qualification for financing; the farmer has to already have a sale agreement in place before they apply. There is a whole list of documents the farmer must submit, including a business plan, tax documents, cash flow projections, and so much more. It can take 10-45 days to receive a letter of qualification, and there is a backlog within the USDA so the expected wait for closing on a loan with them is currently projected at 5 months.

Leah sent back a detailed explanation of the process involved with USDA financing and why it takes so long. Ultimately I decided that if the landowner will work with my timeline, then I would meet her price for the entire package.

Now I await final confirmation. The suspense is excruciating.

What if this falls through?

mushrooms on an old apple treeI know full well that it’s not the end of the road if this landowner decides that the FSA timeline is too long a wait to close on the sale of the property. If this falls through I will simply continue searching and try again at the next available opportunity. Afterall, the original plan had been to apply with the FSA next March in 2018. I wonder, though, how long it would take me to find another landowner in a position to even consider my timeline; most cannot afford to.

Even with the price being a little higher than I’d intended, $173.5K is still a good number for 150 acres, with livable housing for my kids─in the school district─and near to the community I’ve cultivated through the Madison Farmers’ Market. There are currently 3 other properties available within my target area, which would serve Runamuk well─with actual farm-land and more comfortable housing. However, those properties are priced between $279K and $394K with between 50 and 90 acres, and ultimately they are out of my reach.

It’s the fact that this property is not prime farmland and the run-down, somewhat neglected condition of the house that makes the Swinging Bridge Farm a possibility for me. And especially the landowner’s initial willingness to work with my timeline.

Is it really suitable for pollinators?

Interestingly enough, the Maine Farmland Trust does not consider it farmland at all. We’d been in contact with Nina Young there in hopes of acquiring an easement for the property, but there is very little open land or farmland soils to qualify it for protection. Staff at MFT met to evaluate the potential for an easement project at the Swinging Bridge Farm, determined this property ineligible, and then questioned the property’s suitability for Runamuk at all. In her email, Nina asked:

Is a property with so little open land a good place for pollinators? Can they survive/make honey on forested land alone? Has Sam actually determined how much open land would be ideal for her bees? Maybe this just isn’t the right property to make her plan work?

Compromise

It’s true that I had hoped to find a property with 10 or 20 acres of established pasture where I could cultivate prime bee forage and then maintain it with bee-friendly mowing practices. I had also hoped to have a view of the mountains I love so much. I went into this knowing that there would be compromises along the way. I’ve accepted my position as a beginning farmer, and the ramifications that come with the financial situation that puts me in.

Thank goodness I was called to beekeeping. I have no shortage of offers for apiary sites from locals throughout the community, and indeed, the currant location of the Runamuk apiary at the Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks is a prime spot amid miles of carefully maintained hay pastures.

Bees will travel up to 3 miles from their hives in search of food, so when I am looking at a potential farm property for Runamuk I’m looking at the landscape within a 3 mile radius of the apiary site using Google Earth. New Portland has a deep-seated agricultural community, and there are many old orchards tucked away in the hills, as well as broad pastures that are still hayed every summer. What’s more, there are actually a lot of trees that provide prime forage for pollinators. I’m confident this site will prove to be a good place for my bees, and for the native pollinators that I hope to encourage as well.

If everything goes through and we find ourselves stewards at the Swinging Bridge Farm, Paul and I would work together over the next few years to open up about 10 acres for gardens and pastures. The bulk of the forest would be maintained as mature growth to preserve the wildlife that lives there.

My best shot

Given that I have been searching for a property in my area and price range for years, and that this landowner is willing to work with me and my FSA-timeline I intend to give it my best shot. I see a big opportunity for Runamuk there.

Please consider donating to the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme campaign to help raise funds for the Runamuk Pollinator Conservation Farm! Even $5 goes a long way in bringing us closer to our goal! Check back soon for more updates on our progress!