October Nor’easter

An unusual October Nor’easter tore through New England last week, breaking records and causing power outages for over a million households. Here at Runamuk, the fierce winds sent the sheep-tractor flying to land toppled upside-down a good 10 yards down the field. I don’t know how long my poor sheep were exposed to the elements, but they were a soggy, woolly mess when I found them Thursday morning. It seems Old Man Winter has awakened from his long sleep, and is making mischief once more.

soggy sheep_october noreaster
Soggy sheep!

Now that I’ve been through a full year of seasons on this property, I have a better understanding of the conditions we’re facing. I can see opportunities for improvements to the livestock accommodations that would make the winter easier on both the animals and their farmer.  I’ve been working doggedly through my list of winter preparations, hoping to beat the first snows. Some of the most important projects are things like:

  • Semi-permanent winter fencing for livestock.
  • Winterizing hives and providing some kind of wind-break.
  • Modifications to the Winter Coop
  • Modifications to the Winter Sheep-Shed
  • De-worming the sheep
  • Move the flock back to the Winter Coop
  • Equipment clean-up
  • Garlic planting

Winter Coop Modifications

Modifications to the Winter Coop were high on my list of priorities; the roof absolutely needed to be tightened up. Last winter the wind was able to get under a large section of the tin roofing so that it billowed frighteningly in the weather. There was also a leak where the flashing had come away from the building that allowed water to drip onto the nesting boxes below.

Note: Heights are a challenge for this farmer; big thanks to my friend Jeremy for climbing up on the roof of the coop to make those repairs for me!

A dividing wall was added─turning one coop into two, allowing me to house chickens of different ages. I added a pop-hole to the coop and made some alterations to the door to prevent snow and ice build up. There was a general tightening of drafty gaps with spray-foam insulation. Then I MacGuyvered a flap at either end of the coop using a couple pieces of mill-felt so that I can increase or decrease ventilation depending upon the temperature outside. Plastic went back on the outside walls this week and now the only thing left to do is add more roosts and nesting boxes.

broody hen
Sadly, there was one casualty to the October Nor’easter. Some predator took advantage of the storm to completely devour both hen and eggs.

The Runamuk laying flock consists of some 80 or so birds… I don’t actually know how many I have right now lol; I haven’t stopped long enough to count them. Regardless, moving them from field to coop or coop to field is a big job and one that requires extra hands. It took a couple of nights, but all of the birds I intend to overwinter were moved off the field and into the Winter Coop. Those who didn’t make the cut are slowly being culled: non-producing hens and all but one rooster. No free-loaders at Runamuk.

I’m finally beginning to get some eggs again and I’m hoping to be back to full-production soon. I’m not sure, though, how the cold and dark of winter is going to affect production with these heritage-breed hens compared to the hybrid-commercial layers I had last year. Those Golden Comets really cranked out the eggs all winter… To encourage laying, I’ve set a light on a timer in the coop to come on in the morning at about 4am, but I allow them to go to bed with the sun in the evening. I know they’re capable of laying through the winter, but I don’t want to push them too hard either.

Sheep-Shelters

The sheep are still being rotated around the property, and probably will remain on pasture til sometime in November. Since Lilian’s Temper Tantrum, the sheep with their shenanigans have continued to make life especially “interesting” here at Runamuk. Not once, but twice! I found sheep inside my fenced garden. Their shenanigans have only increased in frequency as we’ve gotten closer and closer to breeding season…but that story is blog-post in itself lol.

I can’t blame the sheep though; in almost every instance it iss farmer error that allows the opportunistic sheep to take advantage. I know a lot about raising bees and chickens, but I’m still new to sheep.

sheep-shed modifications
Re-building the sheep-shed to make it stronger!

Aside from the sheep-shenanigans, it was important this year to have not one but two separate sheep-accomodations. One for just the ladies, and another for the guys. For the ewes I opted to use the Sheep-Shed I constructed last year, but with some modifications. I took off the plastic and removed the hoops, seeking to make a stronger structure that requires less maintenance from the farmer during storms. I also re-positioned the shed to make it more centrally located in hopes I’ll be able to provide the sheep with a least a small yard in the lee of the garage. It will henceforth be referred to as: the “Ewe Shed”, where my ewes and their lambs will live during the winter.

The guys are going to overwinter in the Sheep-Tractor, which will sit out back─just beyond the apiary.

Fencing for everyone is a high priority, and currently still on my to-do list. I actually have all the fencing I need to do the job, but I’m a little short on T-posts and finances are tight, so I’ve been picking them up 2 and 4 at a time when I visit Tractor Supply. The Almanac is forecasting the first signs of snow for mid-November, so there’s still time to get this done─provided I get all the T-posts in the ground before it freezes…

Equipment Clean-Up

Making sure the livestock was squared away for winter has been my first priority, but ensuring that all of my equipment is cleaned up and put away was high on my list too. I’ve spent a lot of money on tools and irrigation in the last couple of years, and having maxed my credit to the hilt to get up and running here, I know I won’t be able to make those kinds of investments again any time soon. I need to take good care of the equipment I have so it lasts as long as possible.

With that in mind, I spent last Sunday pulling up the tomato patch to get at the drip-tape I’d laid there, and worked my way back from the garden removing irrigation and hoses from the field. I drove the car right out to the garden and loaded the equipment into the back to haul it to the garage. Each hose was fed over the top of the car and then coiled on the other side. The increased elevation ensures that any water still in the hose drains out the other side as I pull it over and coil it up. Each hose neatly with a piece of twine in one or two spots, just the way my farm-mentor showed me years ago.

Gaining Ground

lucy's eyeball
Lucy is the sweetest little lamb!

Incidentally, I had the opportunity recently to show off my place to that same farm-mentor, Linda Whitmore-Smithers, from Medicine Hill in Starks. She came for honey and I seized the chance to pick her brain about pasture management, critter-welfare and product marketing, etc. It was rewarding to be able to show this powerhouse-woman, whom I admire and respect so much, how far I’ve come along my own farming-journey.

“I’m following you!” Linda told me.

Thank you, Linda. It means a lot to know that there’s love and support out there. Indeed, some days it’s the only thing that keeps me going. Some days it feels like I’m working, working, working, and not really gaining. Some days the farm and the finances and being mom─is so overwhelming that I can’t help but wonder what the *#@$ I’m really doing here. Am I really making a difference in the world? Or am I just banging my own head off a wall?

Those are the days I just put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. I pick one task from the chalkboard and just do that one job to completion. When I feel overwhelmed I return to my list to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing. If I’m having a panic attack, I’ll take a yellow highlighter and highlight the most important tasks on the list and then I’ll select my next project from those I’ve highlighted. In this way, one task, one priority at a time, I have managed to accomplish quite a lot. I am gaining on that massive list of winter preparations. And I am gaining in income from this farm. Slowly and steadily, with dogged determination I am gaining ground here.

Old Man Winter is Awake!

I think this next month will continue to be difficult both in work-load and finances, but once ski-season hits, my farmstaybnb will be hopping─and that will give Runamuk a really great start to 2020. I think, that will have a snowball effect (no pun intended) for Runamuk─in a very positive way. Then all I’ll have to worry about is moving snow and serving up those delicious farm-fresh breakfasts for the next few months haha. Stay tuned, folks! Old Man Winter is awake and up to mischief again!

Thank you 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! Or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a daily glimpse into life on this Maine conservation farm!

September

i am woman. hear me roar.

And just like that September is here; summer is winding down, the kids are back in school, and all focus is shifting to winter preparations. Runamuk’s first growing season upon our forever-farm home has certainly had it’s share of ups and downs. Yet, even though finances are stupid-tight and I’m facing another winter here without a snowblower, I’m feeling good about the state of things at Runamuk. Like─really good.

Winter Preparations

first day of school
First day of school and WIlliam is looking sharp!

The growing season’s not quite over yet. I still have a lot of veggies in the garden that I’ll be harvesting well into the fall, but my attention (like so many other folks in these parts) has shifted to winter preparations. I have a lot of animals and beehives to make ready, a garden to put to bed, and a big house to secure before the first snows come.

In the past, the personal deadline I’ve set for completion of Runamuk’s winter prep was Thanksgiving. Last year, however, our first snow storm came 2 weeks before Thanksgiving. From that point on I was unable to get fencing up for the livestock, and I ended up with my precious electric-net fencing burried under 5 feet of snow and animals that completely disregarded it come March. So the revised deadline is now Halloween; which means I have less time and more work than ever before to make my farm ready for winter.

It’s a huge advantage for Runamuk to have it’s farmer 100% of the time─and we’ve made some great strides this season because of it. I won’t lie to you and say that it hasn’t been a tough adjustment, though…

A Big Jump

To go from being a landless farmer, to finally having a piece of ground to work with, was a big jump. I admit it’s taken a while for me to come up to speed. Giving up part-time work came earlier than I’d initially planned for, so add that financial weight to your pack when making the leap and you might struggle too. There’s so much to do; everywhere I look I see chores and projects that need doing, and I’m the one responsible for doing them.

I was overwhelmed, and worried maybe the naysayers were right…maybe I really did bite off more than I can chew. Maybe I really am just a deluded young woman who should get a real job, and do like everyone else and just garden or beekeep as a hobby. Why can’t I be happy just living inside the fence like everybody else?

A Solitary Existence

Honestly, I think I wasn’t entirely prepared for the level of isolation that comes with being a single farmer; living alone is still as new to me as this house is. I think, though, that anyone─man or woman─would struggle to some degree with such a solitary existence as this. There are days on end when I don’t venture off this property; someone might stop in for eggs or veggies, but that interaction is short-lived and infrequent. It’s not so bad when the kids are on the farm, but on the weekends when they’re away at their father’s the house feels as big as it really is, and the absence of companionship is more pronounced.

I balked at it in the beginning, and tried to fill the void through dating─searching for my BFF and partner in life. That, however, only succeeded in further defining the distance between myself and the rest of society.

It hurt more than you might think it would…to realize that one’s lifestyle─especially the values and principles you’ve built a rich and meaningful life around─is so far outside the realm of the ordinary that most people can’t even comprehend it. For most people, it’s too much work, too much sacrifice, and not enough money.

People ask me fairly frequently: “Are you doing this all on your own?”

The answer is: “Yes, it’s just me.” They’re not lining up to be the next Mr. Runamuk, and, truthfully, I won’t share it with just anyone.

First Sign of Fall

“Look,” said John, bagel-baker at West Branch Bakery. He was pointing to something in the sky outside the little barn at Rolling Fatties. We─the producers who vend there, together with the local patronage─were congregated for the Kingfield Farmers’ Market, with glasses of local craft beer in hand as we enjoyed the live music on that Friday evening in late summer.

friday night at rolling fatties kingfield
The Friday night scene at Rolling Fatties in Kingfield, Maine.

My gaze followed his, searching, til I spotted the distinctive orange blush to the crown of the tall oak outside the Rolling Fatties farmhouse.

“The first sign of fall!” I exclaimed, suddenly giddy with excitement.

Despite the work of winter preparations, and the impending cold and snow that will follow on it’s heels, Autumn is one of my favorite seasons. It’s the harvest season, a season of plenty, and the season for dry, crunchy, fragrant fall leaves. Autumn marks the start of a season for tradition and family, for drawing together and celebrating. It’s also a season for self-reflection, and when I saw those fiery orange leaves on the oak outside Rolling Fatties, I suddenly knew what I had to do.

I leaned in.

Like I’ve done so many times before. I leaned into the storm, put my weight into it, and embraced the work and the isolation. Time alone is actually really good for creative types; and it’s not like there isn’t enough to keep me busy and occupied in my sequestration.

A Rogue Chicken

Somewhat belatedly, I realized that I’m rather like my rogue chickens─who are happier risking their lives outside the protection of the fence, than living with the rest of the flock inside it. That’s why I’m not happy with a regular job and regular hobbies like the vast majority of society; I’m a damned rogue chicken!!!

rogue chickens
Rogue chickens at Runamuk.

At length, it dawned on me that I’m actually fairly content being here and doing this on my own. It allows me the freedom to be me without restraint. What’s more, doing this alone allows me to build my farm up the way I’ve always envisioned─without having to make compromises to satisfy a partner. Maybe that’s a little selfish, but after 10 years working toward this goal─researching agriculture and planning every minute detail of the Runamuk farm─it’s hard to make concessions.

I remembered, too, that it’s not the critic who counts. It doesn’t matter what they say. I’m here now. Against all odds, this girl from the backwoods of Maine, who comes from a dysfunctional, blue-collar family, without a penny to her name, and no agricultural lineage to speak of─managed to buy herself a farm. I did that.

daring greatly_theodore roosevelt quoteGoing through the FSA was probably the smartest thing I could have done, too. The government doesn’t want the farm back; the $180K this property cost is just a drop in the bucket to them! Hell─there are probably politicians with toilet seats that cost more than that! And there are certainly politicians who spend more than that on golf-trips…

The FSA, with the programs and resources they offer farmers, has really allowed me the flexibility I need during this phase of the farm, and I wouldn’t be doing even half so well if it weren’t for that support. If you’re reading this blog trying to figure out how to emulate my success, I would urge any beginning farmer to reach out to their local USDA branch to begin exploring the options available to you.

Feeding Households

We came to do our grocery shopping for the week with you.

These are probably the sweetest words any farmer can ever hear, and something I take as a huge compliment.

It was Friday night and Runamuk was set up at the Kingfield Farmers’ Market once again. I recognized the couple─they’ve come through the farmers’ market before, I think…or maybe they stopped by the farm? I couldn’t remember their names, but they remembered me enough that they made it a point to bring their reusable cloth shopping bags.

kingfield farmers' market
At the Kingfield Farmers’ Market
crumb again and runamuk
Runamuk (left) and Crumb Again Bakery (back corner) at the Kingfield Farmers’ Market.

Later in the weekend, on Sunday, I bartered $150 worth of Runamuk’s finest produce for a set of bunkbeds to expand the farmstay. I was brave enough to ask if they’d consider a trade, and these folks were happy to have the fresh, locally produced food, so it worked out well for all of us.

And on Monday, when the guests Runamuk had hosted over the holiday weekend made ready to depart, they bought their groceries for the week to take home with them.

What a rewarding feeling to know that I am feeding these households this week!!!

I am Woman; Hear me Roar

I remember feeling rather as though I was standing on a precipice last year as I counted the days to Closing. Buying a farm requires a leap of faith. You hurl yourself off that cliff hoping against hope that your belief is strong enough to carry you through to success and safety. For me, with no formal education, no agricultural legacy, and no partner─it was a huge leap.

Picture me, if you will, with the comically overburdened ruck-sack that is my farm. My 2 kids are clinging to me like baby sloths─or opossums? No─my boys would be something akin to baby orangutans who are fighting at each other with their long-ass arms as I attempt to bridge the gap. My own arms and legs are flailing as I sail through the air, reaching for that ladder across the way, trying not to look down at the Gorge of Doom far below us. Somehow I managed to grasp the very last rung of that rickety old ladder, and now I’m fighting to pull us all to safety.

Summoning every last ounce of strength, she reached for the next rung on the ladder; she would not give up. Sheer grit and determination fueled her climb. Straining she pulled for all she was worth, muscles bulging, gaining first one rung and then another. Under the heavy burden of farm and family, the Earth’s mighty warrior priestess climbed slowly, pulling herself one rung at a time out of the Gorge of Doom….

They say mentality is your biggest asset, right? 😉

i am woman. hear me roar.Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe to receive the latest posts from Runamuk directly to your in-box! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a daily glimpse into life on this bee-friendly Maine farm!

Geez, Sam!

maine nucleus colonies_2018

It’s mid-October, the temperatures outside are dropping and the beekeeping season is winding down. Runamuk’s 2018 farm-season has certainly been one for the books, mainly because this was the year we finally made farm-ownership possible─but for honey production it wasn’t the greatest of years. Even still, I’m happy with the way the season went and with the hives that I have going into the winter.

hyl-tun apiary
The Runamuk apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. Early August 2018.

Season Review

After losing twenty out of twenty-one hives over the course of the 2017-2018 winter the state of the Runamuk apiary was just a little precarious this spring. I’ve experienced hive losses before and have come to accept it as just another part of beekeeping, but it certainly makes it difficult to gain ground in this industry. With the purchase of a farm on the line, it was especially stressful.

I imported 10 packages of replacement bees from Georgia, bought 5 overwintered nucs, and managed to raise about 30 Queens of my own. Those Queens either replaced Queens in the southern packages, replaced bad Queens, or were added to nucleus colonies that are going to be overwintered in hopes of supplying my own replacement hives for this winter’s inevitable losses.

agriope at luke's apiary
Luke’s apiary in Madison, Maine.

For the last 2 seasons I’ve been managing the apiary of my friend, Luke Vigneault, in addition to my own. Our beekeeping journeys have run parallel over the years; we’ve shared orders on Queens, tended bees together, and learned from each other. I’ve been so impressed by Luke’s honeybee stock that I grafted from his hives to produce two-thirds of the Queens I raised this year.

Between the 2 of us, I’m managing 27 colonies at the moment─Runamuk’s 15, and Luke’s 12 hives. Hopefully this winter is kinder to us than last winter was.

Poor Honey Season

uncapped honey
Nectar of the Gods!

As for for honey production, this beekeeping season wasn’t really the greatest. Runamuk was not able to supply customers with the local, raw honey they’ve been clamoring for and I can’t help feeling like it’s a failing on my part (“Geez, Sam! What gives!?”). At the same time, I know what a set-back the harsh winter and loss of colonies was for my operation─because I had to wait for replacement bees and only had one weak hive in May (when the nectar-flow really gets underway here), I wasn’t able to capitalize on Maine’s spring honey-season.

In addition, the earlier part of the summer was exceedingly dry and flowers really weren’t producing much nectar, so I was feeding the bees a lot of sugar-syrup. Because the majority of my hives this year were new colonies, or were new Queens I was trying to establish, I wanted to give them every possible resource so they would have the best chance for survival. That means I fed all but the hives that were making honey, and whatever honey that was produced got redistributed among the nucs to ensure every hive has the stores it needs to make it through the winter.

Keeping Colonies Small & Tight

runamuk's hive set up
Runamuk’s single deep and medium hive set-up.

It’s my goal to keep my honeybee colonies “small and tight” going into winter. After 8 seasons working with bees, learning from other beekeepers, and learning from my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that bees overwinter more successfully when they’re not trying to occupy so much space. With this in mind I’ve adopted a single deep and medium box set-up for my brood nest. The frames of larvae to occupy the deep-box, positioned on the bottom, with a medium filled with honey settled on top.

During the season I’ll add more mediums as necessary─either to increase the colony’s capacity for brood, or for honey production, but I always want all that extra equipment to come off before the winter sets in.

Prioritizing Mite Treatments

I’m feeling really confident in the condition of the 27 colonies under my care. I’ve learned to prioritize mite-treatments and perform them as a rule the first week of August and mid-to-late September. If the infestation were severe, I would do another late October treatment as a final clean-up before the long winter. Mite-treatments are the pits, but having seen hives go down as a result of varroa─I know that it’s not pretty and it’s not a good feeling knowing that, as the beekeeper, you’re the one responsible for it.

I’ve learned too, that I can significantly reduce mite-levels in my hives and grow my apiary at the same time just by breaking up large colonies to make more nucs. That’s a win-win in my book. By breaking up hives and sticking to my schedule for mite-treatments, I’ve been able to keep some very healthy-looking bees these last few years, and I know that these methods─in tandem with my newfound Queen-raising skills─set Runamuk up for some big growth in the next few years.

I’m not treating the hives for nosema because this disease has not historically been an issue in my apiaries. If I had hives that were coming through the winter and had an excess of brown staining on the front of the hives, I would know that the fungus had infected the colonies and I would use the Fumagillian, administered in the sugar-syrup fed to the bees in the fall. There are lots of resources about nosema and how to prevent and treat that problem; the main thing is to be aware of it and to ensure your colonies are healthy and strong going into winter, and to take steps to ensure your hives are appropriately set up.

Winter Preparations

wintering bees
Two of Runamuk’s hives back in December of 2012.

That brings me to winter preparations. Things are almost over at the apiary for the 2018 beekeeping season. I’ll be taking mite-treatments OFF the hives this weekend. After that I won’t go back into the hives for anything more than to administer sugar-candy or pollen patties (should hives make it to March), until April.

At this point in the season I’m not manipulating frames. Since August I’ve been managing the hives with an eye toward winter; that means I’ve been moving brood “downstairs” to the bottom box, and positioning honey stores so that the colony can move up through the hive in what I hope is optimal fashion.

Sometime between now and Thanksgiving all of the inner covers will be switched out for wintering inner covers, which are deeper on one side and allow space for sugar-candy to sit under the telecoping cover. Many beekeepers fill that space with candy, but I prefer to lay my candy directly across the top bars─as close to the bees as I can get it.

I’ll put the candy on at the same time, then top it with some kind of moisture-absorbing material. This is crucial, and I think my attention to this detail is the reason I haven’t had much issue with nosema in my hives.

Nosema is a fungal disease which─like all fungi─thrives in wet conditions. I’ve tried homasote board and newspaper in the past, but nothing seems to work so well as a box of wood shavings above the inner cover. I tack a piece of burlap to the bottom of a medium box, and add several inches of wood shavings─you can even use the same type of pine bedding you might use for livestock (but not shavings that have actually been used by livestock! yuck!).

I also like to ensure my hives have both lower and upper entrances, in case the snow should cover the lower one. I make it a habit to check the apiaries periodically throughout the winter, and I’ll shovel out the front of hives just so the girls can take cleansing flights, or to ensure air-flow, but I prefer to allow the snow to pile up around the back and sides to protect the bees from the wind and cold to some degree.

“Geez, Sam…”

It’s certainly disappointing to not have honey available for my loyal customers at the farmers’ market. Not everyone understands why I chose not to take honey from the bees this year. Some folks look at me and say: Geez, that Sam─she’s been doing this for years now and she still can’t give me honey when I want it!

And I can’t deny the truth in that.

Beekeeping is probably the hardest form of agriculture. It is not easy to keep a colonies of bees alive in today’s modern era where poisonous pesticides have infected the landscape and the changing climate is altering our world on a very basic level. Even if you do everything “right”: you feed them, manage them in a timely fashion, perform mite treatments and leave honey for the winter─you’re still at the mercy of the natural world around you. You might face drought conditions, floods, bear-attacks, or extreme temperatures; the list of what could go wrong─all of which is out of your control─is fairly extensive.

As the beekeeper and a caring, nurturing farmer, I have to be the one to say to those folks, “I’m sorry, but I need to give my bees every chance for survival that I can give them. The bees need to be super-healthy in order to cope with the pesticides and mite-infestations, and they’re healthiest when they’re eating honey and plenty of it.”

maine nucleus colonies_2018
The nucleus colonies at Runamuk Acres, New Portland, Maine.

What’s more, it takes honey to build colonies, and I built a lot of new colonies this year with an eye toward the future. 15 of the 27 hives going into winter are nucleus colonies housing my Maine-raised Queens; I’m really proud of the state of the apiary, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t able to sell honey. Afterall, no one gets into farming to get rich; and certainly no one gets into beekeeping if they’re not bat-shit crazy about bees (it’s called: “passionate” thanks!). No, I’ve evolved enough that there’s really only one reason I do anything anymore: I’m doing it for love. Love of the land, love for nature─and love for bees.

Thanks for following along with my farming journey!!! You can support bee-friendly farming simply by buying our products; check out our online farm-store to get yourself something nice today! Subscribe by email or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes peeks into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine farm!