MORRILL, Maine — Farmer Rose Rapp lunged left and sheep shearer Edie Kershner dove to the right Tuesday afternoon, as the two worked together to pull a single animal out of the panicked, woolly stampede of sheep penned up in a rickety Waldo County barn.
The women managed to grab on to a big ewe named Bossie. Kershner held her down while deftly shearing the bleating animal’s shaggy, matted coat.
“You doing OK?” Rapp crooned at the big-eyed Katahdin hair sheep.
The rest of the flock watched the goings-on with rapt curiosity and no trepidation whether they were up next.
It was part of a long day’s work for Rapp, co-owner and principal farmer of The Farmetta Farm in Morrill. Before lunch Tuesday, she castrated several sheep and transferred fast-growing meat chicks from a crowded basement brooder to a spacious outdoor chicken tractor in the backyard. Rapp, 44, is a dedicated animal person who decided to go for her longtime dream of owning a farm a few years ago.
She joined a growing trend in the Pine Tree State, according to figures released recently in the newest USDA Census of Agriculture. In Maine, nearly 30 percent of principal farm owners are women, more than double the national average of 14 percent. That’s also a jump of four percentage points from 2007, the last time the comprehensive agriculture census was conducted. Preliminary figures from the 2012 census were released earlier this year.
“New England has always had a tradition of more women farm operators,” Gary Keough, the state statistician for the USDA, said this week. “Why? Part of it was culture. It wasn’t uncommon for farmland to be passed down through the women. And with the increase with the last census, that’s got to do more with the desire to buy local food.”
Jessica Nixon, the agricultural promotions coordinator for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said this week the census numbers show that farming in Maine is growing in general, especially compared with other places in the country.
Nationwide, the number of farms decreased by more than 4 percent from the 2007 census to the 2012 census. In every New England state, though, the number of farms and the amount of land in farms went up, with 8,176 farms counted in Maine in 2012. In 2007, there were 8,136 farms in Maine, which itself was a large increase from the 7,196 farms counted in the 2002 agricultural census.
Of that growing number of farms, 2,201 have a principal woman operator, 2012 census numbers show.
“I think the growth in women principal operators is reflective of our own industry trend,” Nixon said. “It’s hard to tell from the data if they’re actually turning to farming or if they’re changing their roles on the farm and becoming the primary operator.”
For Rapp, she and her husband, Wes Soper, started Farmetta Farm in 2009, just a year after they married.
“On our first date, I said, ‘How do you feel about farming?’” Rapp remembered.
Soper, who works at Verso Paper in Bucksport, decided he felt good enough about it to be her farming partner. But it was Rapp, who grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in southern Maine, who has brought the experience and the vision. The couple strives to raise healthy, happy animals that roam around the pasture freely in the fresh air and the sunshine, she said. And they invite their customers to come and visit with the animals which they will one day eat.
The meat is available for sale at area farmers markets and through community supported agriculture shares.
“We should have named the farm the happy critter farm,” Rapp wrote about her farm on Facebook. “You just can’t beat it!”
Rapp said female farm operators like her tend to have smaller farms, are not often in charge of large agrobusiness enterprises and tend to look at things a bit differently than male farm operators. She said she also is treated differently at times by suppliers and other people who are surprised a woman is in charge of the farm.
“People say, ‘Well, let me talk to your husband,’” she said. “I say why? I’m the one who’s going to be doing all the work.”
Farming will be celebrated from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sunday, July 27, during the 25th annual Maine Open Farm Day. Nearly 90 farms across the state will open their doors to give people the chance to learn about Maine food producers and products. For more details on participating farms, please visit the website www.getrealmaine.com.