SCARBOROUGH, Maine — A U.S. Department of Agriculture official visited Scarborough on Wednesday to hold a listening session with women involved in all aspects of farming — from the field to the store aisles.
Joani Walsh, deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said the roundtable discussion had been organized specifically so she could hear concerns from women in the sector about how the federal government could support their efforts to create jobs and be competitive in the economy.
According to the USDA, of the 3.3 million U.S. farm operators counted in the 2007 Census, 30.2 percent — or more than 1 million — were women. Maine has the fourth highest percentage of women-operated farms at 25.1 percent, according to 2007 USDA numbers, following Arizona, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
In Maine in 2007, there were 2,043 women-operated farms, according to USDA statistics, with a combined total of 151,831 acres in their farms. That was up from 1,559 women-operated farms in 2002.
Walsh said several themes came out of the roundtable. One was the question of how beginning farmers could get more support as they take over operations from retiring farmers. It makes sense that the issue is coming up in Maine; with its aging population, more farmers will be reaching retirement.
Another message, said Walsh, was that women in the sector see a need for support of the full supply chain and to promote local and regional access to markets.
Walsh said she planned to bring the concerns and issues raised back to the USDA, to keep officials there plugged in to the on-the-ground needs of women in farming.
Walsh noted that the nationwide number of 30.2 percent of farm operators being female in 2007 was up by 19 percent over 2002, outpacing the 7 percent increase in the number of farmers overall.
She suggested that some of it may involve women in farming families who find themselves in the position of taking over or inheriting the operations. And, she said, many women see farming as a way to run a creative business.
“It hits the core of the entrepreneurial spirit that I think really drives this country,” said Walsh.