MONTICELLO, Maine — Growing up on her family farm, Sara Corey was tattooed with the tokens of the Aroostook County potato harvest.
Each September and October, she collected the dust from the potato fields under her fingernails, drank in the smell of dirt and mud, and learned to position her back just right to ignore the pain after a long day of working on the harvester.
By the time she headed off to college at age 18, she was pretty sure she’d had enough.
“I pretty much thought I was sick of it,” Corey said earlier this week. “I wanted to be a pharmacist. I had worked on the farm all of my life, so I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
But Corey changed her mind and that decision brought her back to Corey Farms in Monticello, where she has found success as director of agronomy and variety development. She also has grabbed the attention of the Maine Potato Board, who last month named Corey the 2013 Young Farmer of the Year.
The 23-year-old is the first woman to be chosen for this recognition and is the youngest recipient of the award.
“I was very excited and honored,” said Corey. “It was surprising. But it means a lot.”
The daughter of Daniel and Amy Corey of Monticello, Sara Corey said that growing up on the farm and working the harvest helped her establish her work ethic. She worked as a field scout from the time she was 15 for her father and other farmers, including those in Aroostook County, other parts of Maine and in Canada.
When she enrolled at Husson University in Bangor, she majored in chemistry so that she could pursue a career as a pharmacist.
“I was coming home to the farm on the weekends, and I was a sophomore when I decided to focus on a career in the farming industry and not pharmacy,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to stay on the farm. I was still coming home to work on the harvest. I couldn’t seem to leave it behind.“
She was awarded a bachelor of science in chemistry in May 2012 from Husson, where she received the award of excellence in chemistry for her graduating class.
Her course work included plant pathology, and as soon as she graduated, Corey began growing specialty varieties of potatoes and had minitubers in the greenhouse.
“I sold my minitubers out west and helped establish minituber sales,” she said. “We recently purchased the former Monsanto facility in Island Falls, which has the only privately held greenhouses in the Northeast for minituber production.”
Corey said that she is working to grow oats and more specialty varieties of potatoes and has about 280 acres of grain in Island Falls. She also has worked to help improve Corey Farms, which is a 1,000-acre seed potato farming operation. She convinced her father to adopt John Deere GPS technology on their planter, tractors and combine. And with help from the Maine Potato Board, she expanded irrigation practices at the Monticello farm with the addition of a pond, a pivot and a traveling boom system.
Corey said that she is sometimes intimidated because there are very few women in the potato industry.
“You go into these meetings or trainings, and it’s mostly men sitting there, and many are older than you,” she said. “I go to conferences and I am usually the only girl there. It takes some getting used to.”
Besides working full time at the farm, she is a member of the research committee for the Maine Potato Board and is a member of the Central Aroostook Young Farmers organization.
Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said that the group was excited to have Corey representing the future of the industry.
“We’re truly pleased to formally recognize our first woman as an industry leader,” he said. “Sara’s an excellent representative of the future of the Maine potato industry.”
Corey said that she would love to see more women enter the industry.
“I think that a lot of times, it really isn’t promoted as a job that a female can do, and that is a shame,” she said. “This is a job that a woman can do. But a lot of times, this is still marketed as a male-only profession.”
Corey said that her parents were“thrilled when she decided to join the family business and she is looking forward to her two brothers, Jon and Ben, joining the farm operation when they finish college.
She said that she is proud to receive the award and hopes that she can serve as a role model for women.
“I’d love to see more women get involved in the Maine potato industry,” she said.