On their website, the women of South Paw Farm, Fuzzy Udder Creamery and Butterslide Ranch in Unity warm visitors to expect to be greeted by the canine welcome committee. They’re not kidding. Park along the long dirt driveway, and the enormous dog — a great pyrenees who lives among the goats — will bark hello. The sweet miniature beagle will come to say hi. Gretchen, the sassy border collie, will announce your arrival.
Owner Meg Liebman, a 26-year-old Georgia native who moved to Maine straight out of high school in order to escape “the heat of the suburbs,” is now in her fifth season growing mixed vegetables on her 55 acre farm. She was just 21 when she bought the property, and in the years since has formed a collaborative farming co-op with cheesemaker and rancher Jessie Dowling and fellow farmers Stevie Przekora-DuFresne and Emma Wynne-Hill, as well as a number of seasonal workers. Cows, goats, sheep, chicken and bees now hang out among the wide variety of tomatoes, greens, onions, garlic, melons and lots of other veggies.
Liebman and company are among the youngest of the young farmers currently selling produce, meat and dairy at markets and wholesale statewide. In her case, she received an owner-financing deal to buy the property, which at the time had just a few buildings, no running water and had only been home to a small garden — not a working farm. It was, however, just a few miles down the road from the headquarters of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association.
“I’m very fortunate that I’m just around the corner from MOFGA, and they have a whole host of resources for young farmers,” said Liebman. “That was incredibly helpful.”
In the past five years, an explosion of new farms run by people in their 20s and 30s has breathed life into Maine’s local food landscape. According to the most recent statewide census data, between 2002 and 2007 the number of farmers under the age of 25 jumped from 49 to 221. For farmers aged 25 to 34, the number rose from 278 to 792.
Because of those enormous increases, the amount and diversity of food — particularly mixed vegetables — on the market is huge.
“The market is relatively saturated,” said Liebman. “I think it’s good to push the ceiling on the market to build the market, and to expand the volume of produce that we can get. There’s plenty of people here to eat the food. We just have to get it to them.”
To that end, South Paw Farms is one of a number of Maine farms that accept Electronic Benefits Cards. At places like the Ohio Street Market on Wednesday afternoons in Bangor, lower-income families who otherwise live in what’s dubbed a “food desert” — a place with little access to fresh, healthful foods — can get produce to feed their families.
“It’s really important to us,” said Wynne-Hill, who staffs the South Paw Farms booth at Ohio Street. “It’s been really cool to watch that demographic grow, and seeing [people] buy food for the whole week for their families that they can actually afford.”
Aside from produce, the other main product that comes out of the farm are the lovely cheeses Dowling creates under her Fuzzy Udder Creamery name. She learned the tricks of the trade from the cheese masters at nearby Appleton Creamery, and now makes both sheep and cow’s milk cheeses from the small herd she keeps on the farm, and from the cows of North Branch Farm in Monroe and the sheep of Northern Exposure Farm in Holden.
Fuzzy Udder might be new — Dowling has only been making cheese on her own since 2011 — but judging from the tastes of everything from her fresh mozzarella, sheep yogurt and fresh sheep’s cheese to aged treats like the nutty, beautifully textured gouda, rich brie and the pungent, briny washed rind offerings, she’s already an up-and-coming Maine cheesemaker.