North Hartland, Vt. — MY day starts at 4:20 a.m. That's when I get into the barn to help my hired man feed and milk the cows.'' Ruth Shumway of Greenacres Farm, a 329-acre establishment that lies along the western bank of the Connecticut River in central Vermont, is describing her daily routine.
''I don't get back into the house until 9:30 or later,'' she continues. ''Then I begin my projects for the day. We start in the barn again about 2:30 each afternoon.''
Mrs. Shumway owns Greenacres Farm, which has been in her family since 1910. With the aid of one hired man, she manages a herd of 190 Holsteins and Short-horns. Ninety of these are milkers, the rest young stock. She works on the farm seven days a week, and only rarely has she ever taken a day off. She has earned a local reputation as a successful farmer, but her life has been anything but easy. ''I run this farm,'' says Mrs. Shumway, a widow, ''because I had to do it.''
Mrs. Shumway's feelings are shared these days by a growing number of New England women. Recently released United States Census data indicate that women now run nearly 10 percent of all farms in this area - a 3-percent increase over the number of farms run by women in the bureau's 1978 census. The Census Bureau has yet to complete its national report, but its data for New England have become a subject of wide interest. What does the trend among New England women mean?
Prof. Jenny Stoler, a sociologist at St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vt., has conducted research on rural New England women. ''I don't see the trend representing any fundamental change in the entrepreneur style of women,'' she observes. ''Rather, the trend probably reflects that women are seeking to perpetuate a life style they enjoy.''
Most of the women didn't start out with the intention of running a farm on their own. With some, the farm has been in their family for a long time, and they are keeping it going until their children can take over. Others may have started farms several years ago with their husbands. ''Perhaps the husband has left the home altogether,'' Professor Stoler explains. ''Or he might be working elsewhere now, and she manages the farm.''
Professor Stoler adds that even among younger women there seems to be little desire to run farms on their own. ''College women majoring in agriculture expect to get married and work with their husbands.''
Ruth Shumway's experience gives credence to Professor Stoller's observation. Within the rambling, modern Greenacres barn, two long rows of dairy cows stand in their stanchions munching on fodder. Walking between them with Mrs. Shumway, a visitor can sense the affection she feels toward her animals and the pride she takes in her farm. ''I don't know what is going to happen to this farm in the future,'' she muses. ''My daughter and son-in-law live with me, but they are not interested in running the farm.'' Mrs. Shumway hopes that perhaps her hired man, a young college graduate in farm management, will someday take over the operation.
Mrs. Shumway's personal experience as a female farm operator might be common to other women, but the size of her operation is hardly typical. The average size of a female-run farm establishment in New England, according to the census data, is 90 acres. The small size of the farms indicates that most produce crops requiring little land - greenhouse operations, truck farms, and U-Pickem berry establishments.
Abie Metcalf of Piermont, a picturesque New Hampshire town 50 miles upriver from Ruth Shumway's farm, is one such woman. She owns the Plant Pantry, a greenhouse operation that provides flower and vegetable seedlings to local gardeners. She lives with her husband, John, and their three elementary school-aged children on a 100-acre farm that has been in Mr. Metcalf's family for nearly 200 years. Mr. Metcalf does not farm. He works nights as a guard at a Vermont state prison. Mrs. Metcalf and the three children do the farming: the greenhouse business, truck farming, and dairy goats.
Mrs. Metcalf's horticulture career began modestly several years ago when she started to sell squash and pumpkins from her front lawn. They did well, so she began to produce other crops, mainly vegetables.
''Then everything started to snowball,'' she recalls. The Metcalfs became charter members of a local farmer's market. ''There were five of us the first day, and we sold out the first hour. We were overwhelmed.''
In order to sell produce for the entire market season (May through October), Mrs. Metcalf built a small greenhouse. ''Then I discovered there was a market for seedlings. The growing season here is so short that people find it easier to raise plants that have already been started.'' She now has two greenhouses.
Another agricultural industry in New England that has attracted many women is raising horses. Thousands of horses populate New England, and women owners may well be in the majority.
One woman who has succeeded in the business is Heather St. Clair Davis of Windsor, Vt. She owns Cleeve Cloud Farm, a 100-acre horse and sheep operation nestled in the foothills of the Green Mountains a few miles west of Ruth Shumway's dairy farm.
Mrs. Davis and her former husband bought the farm 17 years ago. The farm did not become her livelihood, she says, ''until seven years ago, when I became a single parent.'' The farm now produces two crops: thoroughbred horses and sheep.
What makes Cleeve Cloud Farm a profitable operation is a 10-year-old stallion named Portrait Painter, a horse Mrs. Davis bred and raised herself. The tall (16 .3 hands) gray, handsome animal produces offspring that do very well as hunters and dressage competitors. Along with the two stallions, Mrs. Davis owns five brood mares, which she breeds each year, and 60 sheep.
Mrs. Davis herself devotes few hours each day to the farm operation. She has three children - two sons in college and a daughter in high school - and relies on them, when they are home, to do much of the work. She also has two to three regular employees.
On the second floor of her farmhouse Mrs. Davis built a large, sunlit artist's studio. There she spends six to eight hours every day painting horse portraits and rural landscapes. Her major medium is oils, and most of her work is commissioned.
Not all women who follow agricultural pursuits enjoy successful livelihoods. Many, in fact, abandon farming after a season or so. Others work at it only part time. But the careers of women such as Ruth Shumway, Abie Metcalf, and Heather St. Clair Davis indicate that women on their own can succeed at farming. And the statistics from the Census Bureau suggest that more women - especially those living in New England - will be running farm operations in the future.