FarmDrop Featured in Mainebiz

Forces of nature: Growing crop of women in agriculture makes waves in Maine

By Renee Cordes

May 29, 2023

It’s the first harvest day at Liberation Farms in rural Wales, where Habiba Salat and Maryan Mohamed are tending their crops in greenhouses lush with leafy green vegetables.

“A good harvest, yes,” Mohamed says of her spinach yield this sunny May morning.

Far from their eastern African homeland in war-torn Somalia, each woman leads a five-person Iskashito, or cooperative, on land jointly operated by the Lewiston-based Somali Bantu Community Association, and the Agrarian Trust, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit that supports land access for next-generation farmers.

“It is a way of feeding others, and something I can give back to the community,” Salat says. “If I take a paycheck, that’s limited to me. But when I produce, that’s affecting other people’s lives and my family, too.”

Outside the greenhouse, Salat enjoys interacting with customers at farmers markets in Yarmouth and Norway, as does Christine Pompeo twice a week in Portland. The South Sudan native grows African and American vegetables in Falmouth on the Hurricane Valley incubator farm run by another Maine nonprofit called Cultivating Community. When selling her wares, Pompeo frequently shares tips with buyers for cooking amaranth and other vegetables native to Africa.

“People need to know how to cook African vegetables,” says Pompeo, a former refugee raising four children in her adopted homeland while her home country remains engulfed in civil war.

From laborers to farm owners creating jobs, growing numbers of women are working in Maine’s $1.8 billion agricultural sector, of which crop production accounts for $1.4 billion, according to figures provided to Mainebiz by Camoin Associates using Lightcast data.

More female producers

Nationwide, a 27% jump in the number of female agricultural producers between 2012 and 2017 outpaced the 7% increase in the number of total producers during that same period, according to the latest census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Maine, where the number of farms, farmland and average farm size overall dropped between 2012 and 2017, the proportion of female producers exceeds the national average. Around 44% of the state’s 13,414 agricultural producers in 2017 were women, compared to 36% nationally and placing Maine among the top five states. New and beginning farmers also made up nearly a third of the total.

The census is conducted every five years by the USDA, which is still collecting data for its 2022 tally of farms and ranches and the people who operate them; the next one may include Liberation Farms, which received a visit from a census worker the day Mainebiz was there.

Out of 265 Somali Bantu farmers in Wales cultivating 40 acres, around 70% are women, according to Muhidin Libah, the association’s executive director who splits his time between the Lewiston office and chores in Wales. While 220 farmers grow crops for themselves, 45 work in self-selected groups of five that cultivate produce sold at the Suuq, or farmstand, and to wholesale and retail customers. Those cooperatives, like the ones led by Salat and Mohamed, function as independent businesses. Libah sees a lot of similarities between the Liberation Farms leaders and his mother, who at age 67 still tills the soil in Somalia.

Once when he asked her why she still likes to farm, she replied, “It is the reason why I’m alive. I have to produce — feed animals, feed people,” he recalls. “This is my journey in the world.” While he admires her strength, one thing still bothers him when he pictures his parents’ farm with groves of fruit trees bearing mangoes, peaches, coconuts, lemons and oranges: “It’s the best piece of land I can imagine, but they are the poorest people in Somalia.”

Fortunately for Liberation Farms, there is plenty of demand for its produce, including farmers-market customers “who wait in line before we even show up,” he says.

‘Story of resilience and nurturing’

Wholesale customers include Maine Grains, whose co-founder and president Amber Lambke says she feels “privileged” to buy Liberation Farms corn for her Skowhegan grist mill. She also sees herself as part of a cohort of women following in the footsteps of agricultural pioneers, from the Wabanaki to legendary outdoorswoman Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby.

“The abundance of female farmers in Maine,” Lambke says, “tells a story of resilience, nurturing and a desire to live close to the land in connection with community.”

Lambke also credits organic-farming pioneer U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, who has been in Congress since 2009 and serves on the House Agriculture Committee. Lambke cited her help in establishing a “transformative” apprenticeship program at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association that lures farmers to Maine.

Speaking to Mainebiz from Washington, D.C., Pingree said that while she has turned over ownership of Turner Farm on North Haven Island to the American Farmland Trust she still has a house on the 200-acre property.

The 68-year-old Minnesota native got her first farm in the 1970s, “when I would go somewhere and buy a cow and they would look at me like I came from a different planet,” Pingree recalls.

Today, she finds there are a lot more market opportunities for young farmers, particularly women, from farmers markets to restaurants buying local ingredients.

“Maine is in the right place at the right time,” says Pingree, who recommends apprenticeships and business classes for today’s young women interested in farming.

Offering encouragement to young girls, Jenni Tilton-Flood, a Clinton-based dairy farmer and rural advocate, recently spoke to sixth graders at a career aspirations day. She was touched by a note afterwards from one girl who said she had learned that farmers are made, not born. “That really hit home for me,” Tilton-Flood says.

Look for the Union label

In the Knox County town of Union, Kathi Langelier grows medicinal plants that she uses to make products including elixirs, tonics and teas like Goodnight Moon. Made with soothing chamomile, catnip and lemon balm, it got a recent mention in Prevention magazine.

Langelier, who has published a recipe book and pamphlets on individual herbs, launched her farm and apothecary business in 2010 after teaching outdoor education. Her production site is down the street from her 21-acre farm, where she has around three to four acres in cultivation.

While her parents never farmed, growing up in Turner surrounded by farms sparked her interest.

“We had a little garden,” she says, “and at age 10, I was growing pumpkins and selling them out of my dad’s truck at the side of the road.”

Today at Herbal Revolution, Langelier leads a team of 10 employees. She’s built up the business through a mix of bank financing and a $50,000 grant from the Maine Farmland Trust she used to make a down payment for her manufacturing facility and processing kitchen. She has also benefited from free advice from volunteer SCORE mentor Nancy Strojny, the organization’s Maine assistant district director.

“Kathi has enormous perseverance and determination and refuses to give up as challenges arise,” Strojny says. “Her goal has never wavered — national distribution for Herbal Revolution.”

That goal will come to fruition this July, when Herbal Revolution products will be available in more than 500 Sprouts Farmers Markets stores. As she prepares for that next chapter, Langelier advises today’s aspiring farmers to have a market plan. “Passion is a huge part of it, but you also need to be viable,” she says.

Raising livestock, mowing hay

Relatively new to farming, Brenda White worked in advertising and communications for 25 years before starting the Lil Bit Organic Farm in the Penobscot County town of LaGrange with her husband, Troy, in 2015. Three seasonal part-time employees help with chores and haying.

Operating as a chemical-free business, the farm raises livestock, poultry and vegetables on 70 acres. The farm also sells hay that it harvests on 400 acres from Brownville to Bangor for other farmers who no longer do the mowing

Not missing her corporate job, White relishes the chewing and chomping sounds pigs make in the barn at feeding time.

“It’s totally satisfying to know you’re taking care of them and they’re dependent on you,” she says. The whole idea for the business started, in fact, with piglets the couple raised and sold.

“That experience went beyond our dreams, though sometimes it seems more of a nightmare,” she says, laughing. They later added five cows, which has since grown to around 50, along with calves, steers and heifers for meat. The farm sells livestock for meat, including piglets in frozen form, but doesn’t do any processing itself.

The couple’s children also help out with tethering animals and raking hay.

“It’s valuable for them to understand and appreciate the circle of life,” White says. That includes a hard lesson for her daughter when it was time to slaughter a pig named Pork Chop.

“When my husband asked, ‘Do you like bacon?’ and she said ‘yes,’ it clicked for her right then and there.”

The couple run the farm together but make most of their income offering guided hunts for bear, moose, deer turkey and small game. White also runs a retail store in Ashland selling animal pelts, carvings and other rustic wares.

As someone who’s learned farming on the job, she’s found farm agencies great to lean on for advice and recommends that all farms diversify. She also advises new farmers to educate themselves via web research and from peers in the business.

“You talk to the old timers and to the new farmers and you take it all in,” she says.

Underscoring that farming isn’t easy, she says, “Every day is Monday when you’re a farmer because your animals need to be fed no matter what day of the week and no matter what the weather.” On the plus side, she says, “You don’t have to answer to anybody, you don’t have to worry about the corporate ladder.”

Ecommerce ‘disruptor’

It’s not just farm laborers on the ground blazing trails in Maine’s agricultural sector, but also entrepreneurs like Hannah Semler in Stonington.

The Blue Hill native is a former gleaner with lofty growth ambitions for FarmDrop, an online farmers market she co-founded in 2018.

As Maine’s first full-time gleaning coordinator before she started FarmDrop, the College of the Atlantic alumna oversaw the post-harvest gathering of excess crops from farms across the state for distribution to those with immediate food needs.

With FarmDrop, Semler set out to boost small-farm income via data-driven business planning; offer customers access to the freshest, tastiest local food; and support nonprofits that prevent food waste and feed hungry families.

Every week, around 200 FarmDrop customers place orders for pick-up at 25 locations across Maine and western New York. Further hubs are planned for Waterville and Skowhegan amid plans to expand to 1,000 customers a week.

“Customers are disenchanted by supermarket supply chains and are looking to access local foods in new and convenient ways,” notes Semler, who leads a three-person operations team and works with 25 market hub and pickup location managers in Maine and western New York.

With expansion in mind, Semler recently participated in Dirigo Labs, a 12-week accelerator in Waterville. FarmDrop aims to reach $1 million in sales over the next two years and add locations in Maine, New York and Michigan. While FarmDrop did not win the capstone pitch contest, Dirigo Labs Executive Director Susan Ruhlin is bullish on the company’s growth prospects.

“Farm Drop is a highly sophisticated supply chain and logistics platform that seamlessly connects consumers and food producers through a revolutionary hub-and-spoke model, making it a true disrupter in the local food movement — and Hannah is at the forefront,” Ruhlin says.

Semler has also co-hosted a podcast called “What is American food?” and is a freelance consultant to food companies and organizations worldwide under the name WholeCrops.

Serving the community, she says, “is worth more than all the money in the world.”

At Liberation Farm in Wales, Somali Bantu farmers Salat and Mohamed fully embrace that principle.

“We are proud that we are farmers, proud that we have farms, and proud that we produce food for Maine communities,” Salat says.

Seated next to her near the greenhouses, Mohamed adds, “Everywhere we go, we are farmers, so now here we are farmers, too.”