Doing What They Love

When the sun rises across the state of Maine, farmers rise, too. The animals need food, water and attention. The day in the life of a farmer starts early. But the traditionally male-dominated industry is seeing an increase in the number of women joining its ranks.

“Maine has a tradition of being full of hardworking people willing to roll up their sleeves. Women up here were brought up without the traditional gender roles because everyone had to pitch in to get the work done. This has given women the power to do anything they want. We don’t look at fencing, plowing, putting up firewood and think, ‘That’s the man’s job.’ We look at it and think, ‘That needs to be done,’ and we do it,” Steph Grant of Hawthorn and Thistle Farm in Damariscotta said.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Maine is bucking trends when it comes to women as farmers. There has been a national decline in the number of female farmers, but Maine has seen an increase in their numbers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of female farmers tripled nationally between the years of 1978 and 2007, but there was a small drop in the number of female farmers between 2007 and 2012, corresponding with an overall drop in the number of farmers.

The numbers in Maine, however, tell a different story. The number of overall farms in Maine increased during these same years, as did the percentage of female farmers. According to the most recent census data from 2012, the percentage of female farmers was up in Maine to 41 percent, compared to 31 percent nationally. And the number of females as principal operators of a farm is up as well, according to the data — from 16 percent in 1997 to 29 percent in 2012. This means that nearly one-third of the farms in Maine are run by women.

Steph Grant knew for a long time that she wanted to be a farmer. Her interest began she was 10 years old and learned how to knit. “Learning how to knit pushed me to want to know the next step and then the next. How do I dye the fiber? Oh, how do I spin it? Now, how do I take it from sheep to yarn? When I turned 22, I bought my first two ewes, Eunice and Esther. The rest is history,” she said.

Grant now runs a livestock farm by herself. She has 27 sheep and 26 rabbits. She sells handspun and hand-dyed yarns to the public, along with the meat from the sheep and rabbits.

Hope Ciccone runs Ramblin Rooster Farm in Cornville. There, she raises poultry and vegetables and sells young turkeys to the public. Ramblin Rooster is working to re-establish two heritage breeds of turkeys, one of which is almost extinct. Ciccone got into farming because she wanted to know where her meat was coming from and how the animals were cared for.

“Mainers are known for our independence. Females like myself don’t hesitate to try to take on new challenges for the betterment of our families,” Ciccone said.

Female farmers in Maine are changing things in farming, bringing a new sense of community to farming. Ciccone and Grant both say female farmers are more likely to ask for help and give it, creating a sense of community among farmers that helps to bring everyone together. Informal female farmer organizations are popping up, offering activities like potluck dinners and special guest speakers. Farm Friends, a place for female farmers to gather, offers activities throughout the summer. And at the Farmer to Farmer workshops hosted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, an all-female farmer workshop was offered last year.

“What we bring to the table is a chance to build stronger communities. We are not as physically strong as men, no matter how tough we try to be. Sometimes we need to ask for help. We reach out to our neighbors, friends, other homesteaders and farmers for a hand,” Grant said. “This asking for help brings people to your homestead or us to theirs. This gives you the opportunity to get to know them better, talking, laughing sharing food and stories. It may just be two people or it may be 20. Either way, they are coming together for a common goal to help each other.”

Ciccone sees another benefit in the rise of female farmers. Although there are exceptions, Ciccone said in her experience that the ethics of care for the animals is a higher priority for female farmers. “I’ve noticed that many of my female farming friends put ethics of animal care as one of the priorities. It’s not just about feeding our families but also about proper care and treatment of the animals,” Ciccone said.

With the number of female farmers on the rise, there’s a good chance that, if you’re buying locally and supporting local farms, you’re supporting female farmers as well.

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