Women’s connection to agriculture dates back to the days of hunter-gatherer societies when men hunted woolly mammoths and women gathered nuts and berries to help sustain prehistoric families.
This close association with plants may well have led women to invent agriculture, a theory gaining ground among archaeologists.
The recent influx of women into farming as an occupation in Maine and New England should come as no surprise, then. As of 2007, 37 percent of all farm operators in Maine were women; nationally the number of women-operated farms grew from a mere 5 percent in 1978 to 15 percent, according to 2002 and 2007 Census of Agriculture reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Farming is in our blood,” said Jan Goranson, who sees herself as helping to keep this historic profession alive. For the last 21 years, Jan, along with husband Rob and their two sons, have managed a diversified organic farm along the Kennebec River that has been a family farm since 1859.
Goranson didn’t grow up planning to become a farmer. But after college, she realized that if her family’s farmland were to stay in production, she would have to figure out a way to do it.
Goranson is not alone. More than 2,000 Maine farms are run by women. The Whole Farm Planning classes offered by the Women’s Agricultural Network, or WAgN, these past two years have had full enrollment, according to Gail Chase, WAgN’s director. Among the growing number of organic farmers, the majority are young – and female, according to the latest Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association report.
In recent years, Goranson has mentored a number of female farm apprentices.
“They are less scared of hard work than the guys,” Goranson noted. “They come to farming because they are interested in food justice – getting food to more people, or because they find taking care of plants to be a nurturing experience.
“There is a bit of passion involved.”
Sarah Smith, whose father was a dairy farmer in central Maine, was convinced she didn’t want anything to do with farming until she came home from college one summer and ended up working for her dad.
“When I delivered my first calf, that was it! I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she said.
She changed schools, enrolling in Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where she majored in biology and became enamored of the variety of skills needed for farm work.
“It involves plant science, mechanics, animal husbandry, business management, soil conservation,” she said.
In 2005, she and her new partner bought her father’s farm and began restoring the dairy herd, diversifying farm production, becoming active in her community — oh, and raising a family of her own!
“Women are good at juggling lots of things at once,” though balancing it all is time-consuming, Smith admitted.
She said it helps to have good teamwork, the support of older farmers and other young women farmers around to help even out the roller coaster ride of running a farm. Sarah’s 300-acre Grassland Farm in Skowhegan produces meat and vegetables that they sell through central Maine farmers markets, specialty food stores and other outlets. In addition to their growing family (they have two children), the farm supports one employee and several seasonal workers.
Erica Fitzpatrick Peabody, who grew up on a family potato farm in Aroostook County, knew farming would be in her future and went to college with that in mind.
“I use my degrees to help make science-based decisions as part of a multigeneration sustainable farming operation,” Erica said. “We use extensive soil and plant testing, for example, to apply only precise amounts of fertilizer.”
Erica believes women can be key decision-makers on a farm, participating in everything from “crop production to capital investments to marketing.”
“My father always had a great attitude about farming and made my sisters and me part of the family farm,” she said. “Farming is a great way of life and a career choice that involves the whole family.”
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, speaking at an International Women’s Day event sponsored by Oxfam last month in Portland, said she sees great opportunities for Maine’s economy from this influx of new, younger farmers. A former farmer herself, she believes Maine is at the forefront in supporting local, family farms.
“Mainers like to eat, and especially food that comes from someone they know,” she said.
Eloise Vitelli is program director for Women, Work, and Community, a statewide organization that has provided training and assistance to start-up entrepreneurs since 1984. She is the 2006 recipient of the Maine SBA McGillicuddy Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.