WINDHAM, Maine — For those persons in Maine who wanted to learn more about where their food comes from or how to alter their lifestyle to include a few livestock, last Sunday offered an exciting opportunity to get an up-close look at local agriculture courtesy of the 24th Annual Maine Open Farm Day.
In 2010, the USDA released its most recent five-year census, showing that the number of farms in Maine increased by 13 percent to 8,136, from 2002 to 2007. That’s compared with a 4 percent increase nationwide.
Maine is the largest producer of brown eggs and wild blueberries in the world. It ranks eighth in the country in production of potatoes and second in maple syrup.
It ranks second in New England in milk and livestock production. The small, diversified farms across Maine supply niche markets with organic produce and meat, value-added products, as well as fiber products.
“Events like Open Farm Day help bring attention to all our farms have to offer,” said Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage in a press release announcing the event. “Not only do our farms provide fresh food, but they strengthen communities as well. Maine farms maximize the potential of our natural resource-based economy and provide jobs and economic prosperity to Maine people.”
Phillip and Lisa Webster of North Star Sheep Farm, a sprawling 200-acre sheep farm in Windham, Maine, participated in the event for the third year. Fourth-generation sheep farmers, the Websters have been selling registered sheep breeding stock since 1991.
The farm offers visitors a little bit of everything, with a small flock of heritage breed chickens, donkeys (including three babies), beautiful gardens, and of course, sheep and lambs. After enjoying a self-guided tour, visitors had the chance to speak with the Websters about what it is like to run a historical farm.
“It feels great that people care about what we do to come visit,” said Lisa Webster. “Our most important job is to inspire people to eat, grow and raise local foods.”
North Star Sheep Farm was founded in 1997, when the Websters purchased the Stevens farm to protect it from commercial development. The Stevens family cleared the acreage in the 1760s and the farm has maintained its status as a working farm since the beginning.
Within 10 years of purchasing the farm, the Websters built up their flock of Hampshire sheep to 150 ewes and were selling 12 to 20 a year for $1,000 to $5,000 a head for show and seed-stock animals, with the remaining lambs being sold off the farm as freezer lambs.
Like many farmers, the Websters have jobs off the farm to help pay the bills. PR Landscaping is their successful landscaping company, founded in 1975.
Determined to find a way for the farm to sustain itself, the Websters looked at a variety of operations and settled on the retail lamb business. According to Lisa Webster, it was the most logical choice to cover the farm’s operating expenses and provide an income.
“The Northeast is the largest region of the country in regards to lamb consumption with $134 million in annual sales of fresh lamb meat,” Lisa Webster said. “While 38 percent of the sales are in the Northeast, nearly half of the lamb sold is raised west of the Mississippi and the other 50 percent is imported. With New England seeking new ways to provide food close to home, lamb is a logical choice for our farm.”
The Websters settled on Suffolks to build rams and expand the flock. They found 30 large-frame Suffolk ewes north of Bozeman, Mont.
“The ewes were grazing at the base of a mountain on natural grasses,” Lisa Webster said. “I knew the sheep would be very happy on the rolling pastureland of southern Maine.”
At the 80-plus other farms on the tour, participants were offered a variety of demonstrations, displays, farm-raised products for sale and animals and crops to experience. Activities ranged from barn and field tours, milkings, hayrides and petting zoos.
A list of the participating farms is available at: http://www.getrealmaine.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/calendar.detail/event_id/186/index.htm.