Freeport forum examines farming from a female perspective

Posted July 01, 2015, at 10:53 a.m.

FREEPORT, Maine — A panel discussion Monday at Wolfe’s Neck Farm had federal officials, politicians, and local farmers talking about challenges women face in farming.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, led the discussion, which included U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden. Other USDA officials filled Mallet Barn, along with Wolfe’s Neck Farm employees, local farmers, and people in environmental and agriculture businesses.

The panel also featured Laura Neale, owner of Black Kettle Farm in Lyman; Alice Percy of Treble Ridge Farm in Whitefield; Jean Koons of Kennebec Creamery; Gina Simmons, operator of Common Wealth Poultry Co. in Gardiner, and Marada Cook of Crown of Maine in Vassalboro.

“Like any other physical labor job, it is incredibly male-dominated,” Simmons said. “I see it as a further challenge. I don’t see it as preventative.”

Most of the discussion focused on general challenges, though, rather than gender-specific ones. Some of the panelists talked about the challenges of distribution, which Harden addressed. She said the USDA is looking to help farmers make sure they have enough produce or animal products to sell.

“We do have local regional food co-ops, value-added producer grants that help you add value to what you’re growing … to make sure you can keep a steady stream of product going to a consumer,” Harden said.

Many of the women talked about the financial struggles that come with running a farm.

“Access to credit and borrowing money is one of the biggest challenges,” Pingree said. “I have great appreciation for people who really take a lot of personal risk and sort of put everything out there because channels aren’t that easy as they are in other places.”

Percy said it’s difficult for small farms to compete with “a small handful of farms that are grossing millions of dollars a year,” and that there need to be programs in place to support smaller farms.

“What an incredible challenge to try to figure out how to make policies and regulations that will support that kind of diversity,” Percy said. “Finding policies and programs that can meet farms where they are, in terms of their scale and what they’re producing and where they are marketing, is extremely important.”

Percy said more people want organic food, but because of the cost they can’t afford to buy it, which in turn hurts the farmers.

“People care about how their food is raised and there’s a growing awareness that it costs more to raise food in a way that doesn’t cut corners when it comes to the environment and to worker safety and animal welfare,” she said. “People are eager to support that, but a lot of people can’t afford to support it out of their own very limited grocery budget.”

Harden said the USDA is sensitive to the financial challenges of running a farm and wants to help.

“What we want to do at USDA is to be your partner … to make sure we are making good decisions and we’re helping to leverage dollars, very hard-fought-for taxpayer dollars,” Harden said. “We want to make sure that we’re leveraging them in the right way to make sense.”