UNITY — The farmers who have revitalized Maine’s local agriculture movement are increasingly likely to be young and female, Kathleen Merrigan, the No. 2 agriculture official in the Obama administration, told a crowd at the Common Ground Country Fair on Sunday.

“It was a great day for me,” Merrigan, deputy secretary within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said after her address as a keynote speaker for the day. “Sometimes you’re pushing an agenda in the beltway and there’s pushback and you’re slogging it out. It’s not a fun time in politics. To go out on a picture-perfect day and see young people making a go of it and getting positive feedback, there was this optimism that was just wonderful.”

Merrigan said federal agriculture census numbers show that a hundred-year trend of corporate farms gobbling up small family farms may finally be reversing itself.

She expects that a 2012 census, the results of which won’t be available until early 2014, will show that trends toward diversity documented in previous years are continuing.

“The number of Maine farms has pretty much doubled between 2002 and 2007,” she said. “I imagine you’ll see a lowering of the age of the average farmer. The average across the country is 59, and a third are over the age of 65. We have a huge challenge as a country of populating our working farms.”

This region’s farms are characterized by a growing number of revenue streams for their owners, she said.

“In New England, you have a lot of very smaller scale, very diverse farm operations. You’re not just doing one thing or two things, you’re doing a lot of different things.”

Merrigan told the crowd, many of whom are involved in local food production, about the “significant achievements” of the Obama administration in supporting local and organic food. The department has set a goal of increasing the number of organic farms nationwide by 25 percent between 2009 and 2015.

She touted a program which shares the cost of hoop houses in Maine with local farmers to help extend their growing season, which she said has supported more than 200 farms so far.

The department has also recently unveiled a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program to support local food systems by strengthening the connection between farmers and consumers.

As family farms emerge from the shadow of mass agriculture, Merrigan said a growing number of women are toiling in the fields and selling their wares at farmers markets and in other local venues.

“We see it across the country,” Merrigan said. “Arizona and New Hampshire are kind of neck and neck for most women farmers, but it’s happening in Maine; it’s happening everywhere.”

One of those women farmers, Skowhegan’s Sarah Smith, was also a keynote speaker at the fair on Sunday. Smith told the crowd about her experiences as the owner of Skowhegan’s Grassland Farm, which she purchased from her father in 2007.

“It’s an honor to be representing young women farmers in Maine,” she said.

There was a time when Smith seemed an unlikely candidate to turn around the farm’s fortunes.

As a teenage cheerleader and gymnast, she vowed not to eat freshly harvested food when some homegrown broccoli resulted in worms on the kitchen countertop.

That all changed when she spent a summer working on her father’s farm, which led to what has become a lifelong passion and a career.

Smith said that it can be a challenge to juggle farming chores and motherhood.

“It certainly means making sacrifices,” she said. “We do not get to take family vacations, no camping trips, no days on the beach, and it is sometimes painful when my kids say, ‘let’s go to the playground, Mom’ when it’s a beautiful summer day. The farm is always really the priority.”

When she had one child, she said, she could carry her along in the tractor, but with three, “it’s nearly impossible.”

But, Smith said, being a farmer also leads to parenting advantages.

“They eat like kings, they get so much time outside. They are learning about the cycle of the seasons, the science of the food, and the cycle of life and death. They are learning how to talk to people, in this world where very few people connect anymore, and they know what it’s like to talk about what you’re passionate about,” she said.

She also said that, when they are old enough to embark on careers of their own, she will be able to offer them employment.

Fair organizers from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said that turnout was strong at the fair throughout the three-day event and that Sunday’s ideal weather would probably help boost gate revenues.

This morning, Merrigan and U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree will visit Reiche Elementary School in Portland to learn about Reiche’s farm-to-school program.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

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