12 Tips for Wannabe-Farmers

rotational grazing sheep and chickens

Recently, I received a request for tips for wannabe-farmers. What advice might I have to offer those who are brand-new to agriculture and are just beginning their farm-journey? It came to me through Instagram, a brand-new farmer messaged to say that she’d recently made up her mind to farm. She told me that I’d inspired her (me!), and did I have any tips to offer a new farmer? If you’re in the same situation─new to farming and not sure where to start or which way to go─then keep reading, my friend, this post is for you!

tips for wannabe farmers
Rotational grazing of sheep and chickens at Runamuk Acres.

If you’ve been following along with the Runamuk blog, you’re likely aware that I’ve been calling out wannabe-farmers. Farming is the ultimate form of social and environmental activism we can offer, and the world needs us to stand and take action. Not only is the average age of farmers on the rise, but thanks to industrial agriculture, there are fewer of them, and fewer new farmers following in their footsteps. What’s more, studies by the Rodale Institute have shown that regenerative organic agricultural practices have the potential to allow us to actually reverse global warming. The world needs farmers. And it needs us now.

#12: Start Now!

When it comes to agriculture, there’s a lot to learn, and it really does take a lifetime. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll achieve your goal. Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote often runs through my head: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There’s something you can be growing─right now─wherever you are. I’m sure of it.

Traditionally farms began as subsistence farms, feeding just the farm-family. It would take a number of years before the farm was established enough to feed it’s community. The USDA sites the average “middle-income” household spends $7,061 on food annually, and the “low-income” households are spending about $4, 070. So even if we’re only growing food for ourselves, we’re still saving ourselves a big chunk of money, and eating better as a result. I’m a firm believer that in order to save the world, we must first save ourselves. If you wannabe a farmer, start growing something today and feed your family first.

#11: Do Your Homework

It is entirely possible to be a farmer without a college degree. I did it, and so can you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study and learn all you can about agriculture, though. There’s so much to learn! Get your hands on as many books as you can and read them all. Take notes if that’s your thing (I still have bins and boxes filled with all of the composition journals filled with my scribbled notes from Runamuk’s early days). Go ahead and watch some YouTube, watch food documentaries, visit your local agricultural fairs and tour the exhibition halls to learn more about agriculture in your area. Take a Master Gardener course if your local cooperative extension offers one. Watch for other interesting workshops or events in your area where you might be able to learn new skills.

This is the time for planning your farm. This is the fun part. Brainstorm what your dream farm might be like. What are you passionate about growing? Are there particular types of livestock you’re interested in working with? What skills do you want to learn along the way? How might you market your products? Where will your farm live? Give your farm a name (oooooo─so exciting!). Don’t worry yet if you do not own land to farm upon─that is not the end of the road─merely an obstacle to be worked around in time.

how to get started farmingDo a SWOT analysis for yourself; I wrote about Conducting a SWOT Analysis of Your Farm and have provided an example with a SWOT Analysis of Runamuk. Naturally, these are farm-analyses, but you should do one for YOU. What are your personal Strengths and Weaknesses, and what do you see as potential Opportunities and Threats to your ambitions?

Remember, there are no wrong or stupid answers in brainstorming. Once you have all of these notes down on paper, it will be easier to see where your real passions and interests, strengths and opportunities lie. You can then make a rough plan for your future farm. I strongly recommend a good 5 year plan. Set goals for yourself and your farm; where would you like to be in 5 years? Don’t be afraid to reach, but also try to be reasonable with yourself─this is going to take a lot of work. Save all of your notes and plans for your records. Refer back to them annually to review your progress, and make adjustments to the plan as necessary.

#10:  Practice Your Social Skills

A great many─many─introverts are called to farming. I know, cause I am one of them. Entire farmers’ markets are made up of introverts, trust me! But I’ve practiced and practiced my social skills, and these other vendors have too; I’ve learned to be friendly and open with the people around me, and it has gotten easier over the years. Sometimes noisy or crowded situations can still be overwhelming. I’m still awkward, I’m sure, perpetually weird and overenthusiastic at times, but I’ve learned that I am not alone in my social awkwardness, and a friendly smile is a great ice breaker.

#9:  Get Involved.

how to be a farmer
I participated in a farmer talent show with friends in service of my local farmers’ market! That’s me in the red sweater!

Volunteering your time and energy is a great way for new farmers to gain experience, build a reputation in the community, and network with other people. Most any non-profit organization or local farm will eagerly accept volunteers. Be committed to your cause, work hard, and be reliable. This helps you build trust with your community, and grows your reputation in a positive way. You’ll get to know the people around you, and they will get to know you and your ambitions of farming. Sometimes these relationships can lead to exciting opportunities for the beginning farmer. The people in your community can also be useful resources that you might be able to turn to when you have a question or need some help. Get involved in your community, and develop and nurture these relationships through volunteer work.

#8:  Treat it Like a Business

Treat your farm like a business, because it is one. I always tell new farmers to file a “Schedule F” with their taxes as soon as they are grossing $500 annually from farm-sales. This is the IRS form that documents farm income to the government, and once you have a record of this income, you are officially considered to be farming on some level. This is what financial institutions are looking for when you apply for loans as a farmer, so this is an important document to have. And if you can show an increase in your net farm-income each year, that proves to the powers-that-be that your business is indeed growing.

You’ll also want to have an up-to-date resume, and a formal business plan (mine was a whopping 33 pages when I started! Before I could submit it to the FSA I had to condense it to 12). Your local business development center can help you with that.

If you don’t know already, learn how to use spreadsheets and actually use them to track your farm’s income and expenses. These annual cash-flow records are invaluable tools with potential investors and financial institutions. Always keep your receipts! Also keep production records: how many seeds sown and the yield they produced, crop rotations, fertilizing and pest treatments, etc.

#7:  Be Prepared to Make Sacrifices.

Imagine the pioneers who went West looking for a new life in a new land…they gave up the security and safety available in the East and traversed over 2,000 miles to reach their destination. Along the way they lost treasured possessions, family members─they sometimes arrived with little more than the clothes on their back after their long and perilous journey. Along your farm-journey, you may also have to give up security and safety, or forsake customary extravagances and conveniences. How far are you willing to go to achieve your goals?

tips for new farmers
To avoid the payment on a pick-up truck, I make-do with my Subaru. The seats fold forward, allowing me to haul a small load, or even livestock, if need be.

To be able to do the work of farming, you will likely need to make sacrifices somewhere along the way. You might decide to give up your newer model vehicle for a second-hand beater with no monthly payments. If you’re not already, you may consider buying yours and your family’s clothing at local thrift stores. Giving up cable or satellite TV services will usually save you in the neighborhood of $100 a month; likewise with expensive cell-phones. Maybe you’ll stop eating out, or give up extracurricular activities. Or, instead of buying that new living room set with your tax return, you could use that money to buy a tiller, or seeds and tools, etc. Runamuk has been funded over the years, in large part with my Earned Income Tax Credit. I’ve also lived in very poor conditions and suffered cold winters in poorly heated dwellings in order to free up money for my farming ambitions.

In the end, it’s all about priorities and how bad you really want it. As a new or beginning farmer, you’ll need those extra funds to invest in your business. You’ll need money to buy tools, seeds, livestock, fencing, permits, insurance─you name it. Unless you have some capital saved already, or are fortunate enough to have access to money, you’ll have to figure out how to make those investments. Be prepared to make sacrifices to make your farm-dream a reality.

#6:  Match the Land to it’s Suited Use.

Whether you’re leasing 1 acre for farming, borrowing space in your great-Aunt’s back-40, or you’re lucky enough to already own a small piece of Earth, you’ll want to match the land to it’s suited use. Do a SWOT analysis on the site.

  • Landscape: Is it all filled with brambles? or an open pasture with fairly good soil?
  • Water: Be it a pond, stream, or spigot, you’ll need access to water for pretty much any kind of farming you want to do.
  • Sun exposure: How much sun does the spot get daily and how does the changing of seasons affect that?
  • Weather conditions: Is the site open to driving winds? Will you experience winter snow and ice? Consider how different weather conditions might affect your farm-operation at that site.
  • Drainage: Is the site relatively dry all year? or does it get wet and mucky in the spring?
  • Existing infrastructure: Are there any existing structures or utilities (like access to water and electricity) that you will be able to make use of?
  • Soil conditions: Is it suitable for growing vegetables? or too rocky, and better instead for grazing livestock upon?
  • Plot size: How much space do you have to work with? Dictates how many carrots or sheep, etc. you can raise there.

All of these things will factor into what you can successfully grow at any given location.

#5:  Think Outside the Box.

tips for starting a farm
I’ve learned to build these alternative hoop-structures for everything from seedling houses to chicken coops. They allow me to do a lot without a big up-front investment. Just one example of this farmers’ creative resourcefulness.

It’s inevitable that you, the new farmer, will eventually meet with some kind of obstacle along your farming-journey. When this happens, do not despair. Instead, take this opportunity to get creative─think outside the box and come up with some kind of alternative work-around to your problem.

This is resiliency at it’s finest, my friends. There are so many ways to farm, so many ways to achieve the same end goal: farm ownership and serving your community as a farmer. Don’t let old-school concepts hold you back. Brainstorm ways around your problem─always remember there are no wrong answers in brainstorming! It’s merely a tool to generate ideas.

If you can’t come up with any ideas, research it to see what other people have done in your situation. Don’t be afraid to ask your peers and your community for input, either. You’ll be surprised by the number of people that want to see you succeed─they want you to be their farmer!

#4:  Watch for Opportunities.

tips for beginning to farm
At Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine, premium bee-forage abounds for miles around. The landowners invited me to site an apiary there because I was involved in my community, serving as president of the Somerset Beekeepers’ at the time.

Sometimes doors will open for you when you least expect it. In my own farm-journey, I’ve found that by always working hard, and by practicing kindness and gratitude, it fosters my relationships with neighbors and community-members. The relationships I’ve built through my volunteer work has led to many interesting opportunities for Runamuk: everything from donations of equipment and livestock, to access to land to farm upon.

That doesn’t mean you should say yes to every opportunity that presents itself─especially in the case of livestock. Only you know what is right for your farm-operation, and sometimes, even though they mean well, people are just trying to unload their own problem-animals. Try to make good business choices when opportunities present themselves.

#3: Practice Patience.

advice for beginning farmers
To gain experience, I found jobs within the local agricultural community, including North Star Orchards in Madison, ME. Here I am in one of their vast coolers!

Unless you have ready-access to farmland, or access to credit and capital to begin your farm with, it’s likely this is going to be a long-journey for you. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to be overcome to achieve your goals.

Accept that there will most certainly be failures. There will be bad days. Hard days. Days when you’re sick or sore─or both─and you’ll begin questioning yourself and why you even started this journey in the first place.

You’ll wonder if you’ll ever reach your destination. Be patient with yourself and with the journey. Remember it’s not about the destination. You’re already farming. You ARE a farmer.

#2:  “Don’t Overwork Yourself” (advice from the farmers’ son)

As I sat at the dinner table with my 12 yo son, BraeTek, I pondered what tips for wannabe-farmers I might have. It was a rainy September evening and we were eating one of BraeTek’s favorites: seafood chowder. I’d made it from scratch, with a variety of canned seafood, and my own potatoes, carrots, and onions, in a rich creamy broth. To go with it we had slathered in butter this artisan bread by Julia, from Crumb Again Bakery in Kingfield, which I’d traded vegetables for at farmers’ market last Friday. It was a wonderful meal to share at the table with my son, catch up on his school day, and just connect over good food.

Admittedly, I take great pride in the fact that my kids have been raised largely on my own homegrown and homemade food. After all, it was the desire to supplement our household food budget, as well as to provide fresh and organic food for my family, that steered me down this path in the first place. My 2 sons have been with me through every phase of my farm-journey, and they’ve seen first hand how hard I’ve worked.

Between the slurping of soup, I thoughtfully asked BraeTek, “If you were going to offer tips for new farmers, what would you tell them?”

At first he gave me the typical teenage-scoff, but I laughed that off and pressed him to give the question some thought. The answer he came back with was actually very good; BraeTek’s tip for wannabe farmers is:

Don’t overwork yourself.

He says, sometimes I complain at the end of the day that I am sore or exhausted from working on the farm all day. And he’s absolutely right, you know…as farmers, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. The farming-journey is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to make sure we’re taking time for ourselves, and saving enough of ourselves for our families too. It’s also important to ensure down time in order to avoid burn-out. What a smart kid!

#1: Don’t EVER Give Up.

runamuk acres conservation farm
I am living proof that dream do come true. Check out my farmhouse! If I can do it, you can do it too!!!

This is my number one tip for the wannabe-farmer. If you really and truly want this─if you have no reservations and you know, deep in your heart that you are called to farming, called to serve your community and your planet as farmer─then don’t you ever, ever give up. You will get there.

The path of each farmer will different from the next. It took very nearly 10 years to achieve my own goal of farm-ownership, but perhaps you will have yours and be underway within 3 months or 3 years. Even if it takes you 13 years! in the end, I promise you─so long as you don’t quit─you will eventually find yourself where you are meant to be, doing what you are meant to be doing. Farming.

Join the Revolution: Be the Change

me on the farm
Loving life on my new farm!

The USDA and the FSA consider a beginning farmer to be one in his or her first 10 years of their agricultural careers (but if you don’t have supporting documentation it doesn’t count!). Yours truly is officially graduating this year, from “beginning farmer” to “farmer”, and while I would not claim to be any kind of expert, I offer up these tips for wannabe-farmers from my own experience. My hope is that I can help other new and beginning farmers to have the courage to start down the path of their own farm-journeys.

The time has come for We the People to stand and take action. We can’t wait for our governments to make changes for us─we’ve waited more than 50 years already for environmental action. No, the time has come for We the People to stand up and be the change we want to see in the world. We have that power in our very own hands─we can be farmers, and we can farm using regenerative practices. We can save our children, affect climate change, and improve society─literally at the ground level. Join the revolution today. Be a farmer.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your inbox! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

12 tips for wannabe-farmers

The #GreatFarmMove #FinalChapter

Land-access is one of the biggest challenges facing beginning farmers today, and one that I have certainly struggled with as I’ve worked to build my income from farming. Runamuk has moved a number of times and it is always such an ordeal that─to make light of the situation─I’ve come to refer to these transitions as the “GreatFarmMove”. I am overjoyed and hugely relieved that this #GreatFarmMove will be my last, and so this particular “moving of the farm” also gets the hashtag: #finalchapter.

Moving a Home VS Moving a Farm

I’ve never met a person who liked moving. It’s a big undertaking for anyone, whether you’re moving from one apartment to another, or from one home to another. First, you have to get the boxes and organize and pack all your belongings. You have to make sure the fragile things are protected and that the boxes are labeled. Then you have schedule to have the utilities and communication services turned off at the old location and scheduled to be turned on at the new location. You need to get forwarding forms from the post office and update your mailing information for all of your banks and credit cards. And finally, there’s the actual moving of all your stuff. Hefting each box and loading it into the moving truck or your buddy’s pick-up─and don’t forget the furniture!

When a farmer moves, they have all the tasks you’re already familiar with, along with the added responsibility of farm tools, equipment, and livestock. Tools and supplies have to be brought in from the fields and gardens, equipment has to be prepared for road-travel, and the relocation of livestock needs to be carefully orchestrated so as to cause as little stress to the animal as possible. Sometimes fencing needs to be taken down, or livestock housing needs to be moved too. Even compost and manure piles need to go, as those are valuable resources to the farm. It’s quite an ordeal.

Before I can even think about moving the Runamuk chickens to the new property, I have to set up a space in the barn there for them: construct roosts, nesting boxes, and a pop-hole, set up a fence. Ultimately the plan is to have them in a moveable chicksaw, but I’ll need a place for the ladies to land before I’ll have time in my schedule to construct anything as elaborate as a chicksaw. For the time being they can occupy the stall in the back corner of the barn at the Hive-House, which I’ve already decided will be their winter coop.

The Plan for the #GreatFarmMove #FinalChapter

Closing is scheduled to take place at 9am on Wednesday, June 27th, at the Somerset County USDA office in Skowhegan. I’ve scheduled the #GreatFarmMove #FinalChapter to run from June 27th through July 3rd, and I’ve almost got all my pieces in place to make the transition as smooth as possible.

I’ve already contacted the utility companies, the phone and internet service provider, and sent out my change of address forms. I’ve been packing slowly but surely for the last month and a half, and I put up a simple shed made of pallets, electrical conduit, a tarp, and some of the snap clamps that are sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. This simple structure allows me to begin moving stuff out of the cramped one-bedroom trailer, collecting all of my belongings into one central location.

My friends and long-time supporters of Runamuk, the Hiltons, are loaning me the use of their horse trailer─again. They’ll deliver the trailer to my current location Tuesday night. Wednesday, Thursday, and probably Friday too, the boys (who are now on summer vacation) and I, along with some help from Paul, will load Runamuk into the the trailer, and Saturday evening the Hiltons will hook onto it and tow it the 19.5 miles from my current location in Norridgewock to New Portland─a 30 minute drive northwest.

#greatfarmmove horse-trailer
The Hiltons also allowed me to use their horse trailer in Oct 2016, when I moved away from Starks.

I am blessed with some really wonderful friends. Friends who have encouraged me along my way, who have supported me, or lifted me up when I was down; they kept me going when times were tough. The closest of these friends will be on hand Saturday evening to help unload the horse trailer. I’ve promised the customary pizza and beer, along with their first look at Runamuk’s new #foreverfarm and the opportunity to celebrate with me.

Sharing the Joy

Yesterday Nathan (my FSA agent) contacted me to let me know that he delivered my loan documents and the FSA’s closing instructions to the title company who is finalizing the transaction. He said they are in the process of advancing my loan funds to the title company’s escrow account where they will be held til closing. Eeeeeeeeeeek!

Nathan will be there Wednesday morning at the Somerset County USDA Service Center for Closing, as will Janice Ramirez─the Somerset County FSA Farm Loan Officer that I originally saw when I first approached the FSA─and Andrew Francis, Somerset’s FSA Program Technician, who has also helped orchestrate my farm purchase. They are all so happy for me and it feels right to have them there to share in the joy of this accomplishment; really, when you think about it, my victory is their victory.

And I can say that of all my friends, and of the community which I serve and which serves me. There have been so many people who have helped me make this happen who all deserve to share in this victory─I’ll have to write a post exclusively dedicated to calling out these amazingly wonderful people who are a part of Runamuk’s story, because there are just too many to attempt doing it here and now. You all know who you are, and if you’re reading this, please know that─with all my heart─I am so grateful. Truly.

Days Away

Closing is just days away now. The #GreatFarmMove #FinalChapter has been organized, help has been recruited, I’ve scheduled a Saturday off from the farmers’ market and even taken time off from Johnny’s. I have about 9 days to make the move and settle in at the Hive House. I’m calling this my “Honeymoon”. A time to get acquainted with my new farm, to settle my kids in there, the chickens, Jules the old fat-cat and my dawg Murphy. I can’t wait to walk the property, cleanse the house with sage, and set up the first hives at this permanent location.

It’s really happening folks! Check back soon for more updates coming soon! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your inbox!

State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

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

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

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

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

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

Telling the FSA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ELAP Program

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

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

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

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

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

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Bee Season!

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

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

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

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

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

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

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

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

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

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

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

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

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

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!

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!

Approved!

swinging bridge farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OMG I’m buying a farm!!!

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

Meeting at the Somerset County Farm Service Agency

Yesterday morning I had a meeting with Janice Ramirez at the Somerset County USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) regarding my loan application, their requirements, and the process involved in government financing of the Swinging Bridge Farm. I’ve visited them 2 or 3 times before, but the representatives there are always patient and kind; they seem to truly want to help farmers─they have resources available that they’d like to see good people using─but as with any program governed by the people for the people, there are many rules and regulations they must abide by.

It’s been a week since I last posted with the news of the Sale Agreement for the property in New Portland. Since then I have spent every spare minute working to prepare my application for the FSA. The documentation required with the FSA loan application is extensive, and I am glad to have 7 years of farming behind me going into this.

Here is a list of the documents I need to have to hand in with the application:

  • Purchase & Sales Agreement wit legal description of the property to be purchased
  • 3 year financial history for my farm business
  • Tax returns for the last 3 years, preferably with a Schedule F
  • Creditor list
  • Listing of properties owned and leased
  • Verification of debts and assets
  • Farm business plan
  • Verification of non-farm income
  • 3-5 year cash flow projections
  • Balance sheet
  • FSA loan application

Note: Go to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency online to read more about  and the different resources, loans, and opportunities this office has available for farmers.

Borrower Training

In addition to this documentation. the FSA also requires applicants to have participated in a Borrower Training course that teaches business management. These courses can sometimes cost the applicant several hundred dollars or more, and can hold up proceedings if you have to wait for a scheduled course.

Fortunately for me, the UME Cooperative Extension has assembled an online course that I have been able to start immediately and work through at my own pace (which is a hurried one, since time is of the essence for Runamuk). The course cost me just $50, and I am working through it with my Somerset County Extension representative, Kathy Hopkins, who was also my instructor for the Master Gardener course I took back in 2011, and whom I’m already familiar with, having previously hosted the Somerset Beekeepers out of the extension office for so many years. Score!

I am so grateful to the fine folks at the Cooperative Extension for putting this course together for people like me to utilize. They’ve saved me hundreds of dollars, and freed me from the constraints of having to travel to a distant location to sit through hours and hours of training, week after week. Instead I can watch the videos at 3 in the morning or between calls at Johnny’s, and work my way through the homework assignments quickly and efficiently.

The FSA Loan Process

Janice reviewed with me what I have so far, pointed out a few things she had questions about, and we put together a list of materials I still need to come up with in order for my application to be complete. The FSA will not accept the application until all documentation is included.

Once I submit the application, along with all of the necessary documents, the FSA agent will review it to determine Eligibility. Janice said she sees no reason why I shouldn’t be eligible, especially since there are funds set aside specifically for disadvantaged farmers, like women. This is essentially the equivalent of a pre-qualification for financing.

After that, the application gets scrutinized by a financial team at the state level to determine “Feasibility” of the proposed project. This is where my loan will be approved─or not─and it all comes down to the numbers. Does Runamuk’s current income warrant investment in real estate? Does the business’s financial history substantiate continued growth? And most importantly, does the financial plan make sense?

In which frugality pays off

I was pleased when Janice, upon reviewing my financials, noted how low my living expenses were listed at. She questioned me about it at first, almost disbelieving that the numbers could possibly be accurate, but I told her about how I’ve been keeping careful records of my expenses for the last 2 years. I have the receipts and logs to prove that we are living frugally in order to keep overhead low, and to free up money for investment in Runamuk; it was a carefully calculated strategy, and one that required much discipline and sacrifice. She seemed very impressed and remarked─not once, but twice─on how “modest” my budget is.

My goal is to have my application submitted to the FSA bright and early Monday morning, though my Borrower Training won’t be completed until Wednesday, when I have scheduled the final meeting with Kathy to review my business plan with her as required. After that it’s out of my hands and all I can do is hope and pray that my best efforts are enough to secure the Swinging Bridge Farm for Runamuk.

Thanks for following along! Check back soon for more of our story as we seek to gain a forever-farm home, and to cultivate a pollinator conservation farm in Maine!

Change of heart! I have a Sale Agreement!

at the orchard

I’d all but given up on the Swinging Bridge Farm, accepting it as being out of my reach and beyond my control. However, sometimes in life, good things come to us when we least expect it.

I was in the process of letting it go─wrapping my head and my heart around the idea that it wasn’t meant to be. I spent yesterday picking myself up once more. I worked in the garden, in the soil and the sun, easing my wounded heart. I made sauce for cabbage rolls to feed my family, and ran some errands in-town. After school let out, my sister Marie came over from Farmington and we went together with my younger son to the apple orchard.

at the orchard
Marie (my sister), myself, and my younger son.

That’s where I was while my realtor, Leah, was frantically trying to reach me with the good news. When I returned home there were messages from Leah in my email and on facebook messenger: “CALL ME!!!” and “Sam! I have good news!!!”

I called Leah and she said the most wonderful words: “Sam─you got it! You got the farm! We’re under contract!”

Reportedly, the Seller went to bed Tuesday night and did not sleep well. She was overwhelmed by the number of offers for the old place, which had belonged to her late husband. She had everyone coming at her and she just needed some time to sort it all out. When she woke the next morning she knew she wanted to help me get my farm and signed the paperwork.

I was overjoyed. I am overjoyed.

This is a HUGE win for Runamuk. And for me. But it’s just the first hurdle.

In my mind I envision the path to farm-ownership as an old fashioned steeplechase─the kind where horses and riders race from one town’s steeple to the next. Along the way runners have to jump streams and low stone walls, duck low-hanging branches and fallen trees on the path. Right before the finish-line there is one last colossal obstacle to overcome.

Getting a Sale Agreement for a property to farm on has been a bigger obstacle than any I’ve encountered thus far, but the barrier looming before me now is the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

When I went in March to see Janice Ramirez at the Somerset County USDA office to get more information about the options available to me as a beginning and female farmer, I learned that the FSA does not consider farm incomes of just a few thousand dollars to warrant property investment. My farm income for 2016 had been just over $6K, which could have been considered as such, so at the time I opted to wait until I was in a stronger financial position to make such an attempt for financing.

I’m expecting to bring in about $14K through Runamuk this year. My cash projections for the last few years show that I have more than doubled my farm income every year for the last 3 years, and indicated that trend continuing over the next 5 years.

I’ve done my homework. Extensively. I make 3-5 year plans and revisit them every January as part of my farm-planning process. I’ve worked toward carefully crafted goals year after year to put myself in a good position to make this happen, and now the time has come to put it to the test.

I am a tumult of emotion.

Largely I am confident this is going to happen─that my time has finally come. Yet there is a part of me that is terrified that I will make this big bold attempt to leap over this last monumental hurdle─only to come up short. I’m afraid I will fail and everything will come crashing down on my head, leaving me bloodied and broken in the ditch. I am afraid of losing the respect and faith my community has placed in me, and that I will never have another opportunity to make another play for a farm of my own.

Still, I have come too far to turn back now. There’s too much at stake to even think about giving up. It’s not just about me anymore. There are people who have helped me along my journey, people who look up to me, and even a few who depend on me─whom I owe this to. There are beginning farmers and women farmers out there who need to see someone succeed so that they can have hope of someday obtaining their own farms.

There are my own aspirations of doing more to help pollinators, to teach the world how we can all be just a little more bee-friendly. And there’s me─I’ve worked to make something of myself, of Runamuk, and I owe it to myself to see this thing through.

So rejoyce with me in this victory. I have a legally binding Sale Agreement for the Swinging Bridge Farm!!!

Now brace yourself, because I have just 45 days to obtain a Letter of Qualification from the FSA for financing. Eeeeeeek!

Check back soon for more stories about my journey to farm-ownership and my mission to cultivate a pollinator conservation farm! Save bees, save the world!

2016 Year-End Review

runamuk-apiary-bees-on-a-hive

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

Personally

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

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

Apiary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pollinator Conservation

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

Homestead, Farm & Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog & Writing

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

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

Somerset Beekeepers’

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

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

Madison Farmers’ Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest Lessons Learned

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

Closing the Door on 2016

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

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

But I am still here. Bring on 2017!

Holding my breath for our home loan approval

We finally completed the paper chase for the USDA. Like any home-loan process a number of financial documents and credit verifications are required, but when dealing with a government program there is twice as much red tape.  It was a bit of a hassle to gather the necessary documents and get them to the specialist at the Rural Development office, but it will all be worth it if we are approved.

That was Monday. Read more