Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I didn't expect to catch “bee fever” when I first started beekeeping. The initial idea had been to aid in the pollination of our vegetable garden and to increase our family's self-sufficiency, but after my first summer as a beekeeper I was hooked. I had to have more. Soon my life became all about bees. There was no local beekeeping group, so I established the Somerset Beekeepers, a chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers Association, and was promptly elected president of the group. Apparently, when you take the initiative to start something like that, people automatically assume you've got what it takes to lead. Being a master gardener and beekeeper was a good marriage for me; I went to surrounding communities talking to the public about pollinators, their benefits, why they are at risk and what we can do to help them.
As I expanded my apiary to cover the expenses of equipment, I sold a few jars of honey under the name of “Runamuk” (inspired by our rowdy boys) and quickly realized the demand for local honey — for raw honey like mine. I'd always wanted a homestead of my own, but since I am a stay-at-home homeschooling mom, our family is limited to a single paycheck and a tight budget. That, in addition to the fact that we rent a home on one acre in town, held us back. But I began to see the possibilities that beekeeping and gardening were opening up to me. I became determined to earn an income of my own, with a home-based business as I continued to homeschool my boys, in order to fulfill my dream of home ownership and homesteading bliss.
We plunged in head first, offering a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) out of our backyard, selling seedlings and honey roadside, and continuing with Runamuk's message of pollinator conservation. My husband and I participated in the Xerces Society Pollinator Conservation short course offered by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and certified our micro farm as “bee-friendly” with the Partners for Sustainable Pollination. That first year as serious farmers I learned a valuable lesson — Mother Nature does not care one whit how carefully you craft your business plan, and anyone who is serious about any aspect of farming must learn to roll with the punches that She delivers.
I expanded the Runamuk apiary from two to six hives by making splits from the parent colonies, situating four of them on an organic farm nearby. Spring came on early and hot — good for bees, but also good for parasitic mites like Varroa. Then there came a long rainy spell in June, which confined the bees to the hives where they ate surplus stores; in such close quarters the pests multiply rapidly, and it proved a challenge to build up the hives to an adequate level before Maine's long, cold winter arrived.
Plunging into a CSA program meant we had to expand our gardens, but in order to break up a new plot with the tiller we first had to wait for the backyard to dry after the muddy season. This meant that some crops were planted late. Some crops were washed out in the long, rainy spell. And then there were the weeds brought to the surface by our rushed tilling job.
Looking back, it would have been better to prepare the bed the year before a new garden was to be planted, to kill off the newly exposed weed seeds. But hindsight is 20-20, and as it was I spent a lot of time trying to keep up with the weeds in order to save my crops.
Despite the difficulties of real farming, I was more determined than ever to move Runamuk to a home of its own. I spent months researching and writing a business plan and strategy before approaching my husband's parents, who have a large parcel of land that sits neglected outside of town. Once my husband's grandfather worked a family farm there, but now no one lives there. With a bit of negotiating, I managed to convince my in-laws to agree to sign over 50 acres of the property — a big win for Runamuk.
With the first of our beeswax products on the shelves at local natural foods stores, including beeswax soaps, salves, lotion bars, lip balm — and later next summer our locally produced raw honey — Runamuk is poised for a big leap. Funds targeted toward women farmers are available through the Farm Service Agency, and I've discovered that the folks there are incredibly nice and helpful. Next summer we will take out a loan to establish structural components at Runamuk's new home, including two high tunnels for seedling production and year-round vegetable production, a garage for construction of beehive equipment, and a modest house for our young family. The old farm has grown up over the last 50 years, so livestock such as goats, sheep, pigs and chickens will play a crucial role in reclaiming pastures for gardens and grass, as well as supplying us with eggs, milk and meat.
Pollinator conservation will continue to be at the heart of Runamuk. We plan to offer native perennials for pollinator plantings all over New England and to offer workshops and education about these vital creatures. I envision extensive perennial gardens with walking paths and picnicking spots where we can teach students and families about pollinators and wildlife. It is a long-term project, one that our family will likely spend our entire lives building up from nothing, in order to leave our children a secure future and to make some small impact on society. But bees have opened the door for me, fascinated me, empowered me, and I cannot shy away.
1. Remember that farming in any form is reliant on Mother Nature, so be prepared to roll with the punches. When she knocks you down, get back up and try again. Never give up.
2. Learn to network with the people in your community — for learning avenues in the form of mentors and local workshops, for opportunity for advancement via collaboration with other farmers or local business owners.
3. Seize the opportunities presented you. By all means weigh the risks, do your homework, explore all options thoroughly, but don't hesitate too long lest the moment pass you by. In the end you must face the risks, face your fears and reach for your heart's desire. With hard work and perseverance, you will succeed.
See what Runamuk is up to now on its website, Runamuk Acres.