POLAND, Maine — Tomi Chipman was sitting in an anthropology class at Bates College in Lewiston, on a premed track, and realized she would rather be out in the field with her dad.
By last fall, she had made up her mind.
When she graduates, Chipman wants to be a farmer.
Lots of people farm. Her decision holds a little more history.
Chipman will be the eighth generation and the first woman to carry on a family tradition that goes back to farmer Ben Chipman in 1781.
Her parents are stunned. But happy.
“Even last week, Mom said, ‘You sure you don’t want to be a doctor?’” Chipman said.
“‘No, Mom, I want to farm.’”
Tomi Chipman’s father, Doug, said he didn’t remember a definitive, “I-want-to-be-a-farmer” moment. His father, Ellsworth, had a few cows. He still hays.
“Before I got out of high school I started growing vegetables and supplying other farm stands,” said Doug Chipman, 51. “The end run was just to grow the farm and make it stronger.”
“We’re one of the bigger farms in southern Maine for what we do,” he said.
Ben Chipman’s original 1700s acreage, on Range Hill Road, is still in the family. He’s buried in the family graveyard between the Chipman house and Doug Chipman’s parents.
Doug and wife Elaine farm 60 acres in Poland, Minot, New Gloucester and Gray. The Chipmans have six greenhouses (with heat) and 11 hoop houses (without). After classes let out at Bates, Tomi Chipman spent April planting 3,000 tomatoes and 1,000 cucumbers, along with beets, lettuce, zucchini and other vegetables.
She used to join Doug Chipman in the vegetable fields when she was as young as a year old.
“We’d go out picking peas,” he said. “I’d have her sitting in front of me in the bushels.”
Tomi Chipman, 20, was an alpine racer when she attended Gould Academy in Bethel, graduating in 2010. She’s now president of Bates’ Competitive Ski Team, a club sport.
She picked the college for its intimate feel, like Gould, and started two years ago thinking she would go into physical therapy.
“It wasn’t clear-cut that I wanted to farm until I went to college last year,” she said. “It dawned on me … I don’t want to be a physical therapist.”
The great outdoors, and the chance to work with dad, beckoned. A junior at Bates this fall, she plans to finish her degree in biology.
“We’re definitely a team and I really, really like that,” Tomi Chipman said. “We really need each other to get things done around here. He’s taught me how to work hard, just watching him. He has built it up over 30 years; I don’t want to see that go to waste with what he’s done.”
Doug Chipman is still marveling a bit.
“Seven generations of ignorance — we figured we’d educate the eighth and she still wants to be a farmer,” he said.
But there’s pride in his voice.
Maine Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb said it’s rare to hit eight generations, though he has heard of 10.
Maine has roughly 8,000 family farms, a number that has been growing recently.
“It takes continually reinvesting, to spend money on land and new equipment,” Whitcomb said. The field is so capital-intensive that it makes sense to pass on to family, “but it means that you all have to get along with each other.”
That can be work, he said.
Tomi Chipman has seen firsthand, and Doug Chipman has warned, that farming is hard.
There are long days from April to October. There’s more pressure on land every year.
“We get the winters off. Nothing grows in the winter; I’ve tried,” Doug Chipman said. “We’re better off resting and we give it hell when things warm up again.”
He also skis and ski races. Tomi’s name came from a cover model on a ski magazine. She has a younger sister, Alana, who will not be farming.
“My sister calls me crazy all the time,” Tomi Chipman said. The last time, “all I could do is laugh at her.”
The Chipmans have farm stands in Poland on Carpenter Road, on Route 26 in Gray and on Route 302 in Raymond, and have a field of pick-your-own strawberries on Goodwin Road in Minot that Tomi will start staffing this weekend. The family sold its popular Pumpkin Land to Harvest Hill Farms three years ago.
“This farm’s constantly changed over seven generations,” Doug Chipman said. “She’s going to have to find her niche.”
For the first time this year, the Chipmans started a community-supported agriculture program, selling shares of vegetables and calling it the Friends of the Farmer Club.
Tomi said she’s trying to think creatively for the future.
“I am determined to prove to people that small family farms are not a dying breed, that local and fresh are where it’s at,” she said.
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