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Published: Sunday, 7/27/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

‘Green’ farmers are trending older as appeal grows for rural lifestyles

BY DAVID WALLIS
NEW YORK TIMES

MARBLETOWN, N.Y. — Standing at the edge of an overgrown field, Charles Noble, 65, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Mooowaaaahhh.” He hopes his bovine impression will motivate 68 cattle to follow him to a nearby creek. His herd, apparently not thirsty, prefers to munch on tall grass.

When Mr. Noble, a retired actuary and school administrator, started Movable Beast Farm with his wife in 2006, he would “get totally freaked out and have a battle of wills with the cows.” Now, he calmly stops, temporarily, to avoid upsetting the animals.

“Stress is the worst thing you can do for them in terms of quality” of meat, he said. He sells grass-fed beef primarily by word of mouth. “In order to make any money in agriculture at this scale, you really need to be direct marketing,” said Mr. Noble, whose company earned a profit for the first time last year.

But money is not his primary motivation. Mr. Noble waited much of his life to realize his cowboy dreams. “When I was younger,” he said, “I never wanted to work inside at a desk,” so, he said, he spent “30 years working inside, at a desk.”

Although new agricultural enterprises typically demand long hours and physical stamina, many retirees turn to farming as a way to keep active and earn an income — or, like Mr. Noble, to supplement Social Security. The White House’s 2013 Economic Report of the President notes that “the average age of U.S. farmers and ranchers has been increasing over time.” One-third of starting farmers — defined by the federal government as having been in business fewer than 10 years — “are over age 55, indicating that many farmers move into agriculture only after retiring from a different career.”

Brett Olson, co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, has noticed more gray hair at the New Farmer Summit, a conference for aspiring agrarians. A workshop at the annual event used to be called Young Organic Stewards. It was renamed New Organic Stewards in 2012 to “be more inclusive,” he said.

Local, state, and federal programs devote considerable resources to promoting agricultural start-ups. Many states offer preferential tax treatment of farmland. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., compiles the various tax breaks on its online database.

The Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency recently reduced the paperwork required to apply for its microloan program, which provides recipients low-interest loans of up to $35,000.

The federally financed Cooperative Extension System provides farmers and others with access to advisers, classes, and research, often free.

Age, suggests Krysta Harden, deputy secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, can be a benefit rather than a barrier. She believes new farmers can use business skills, such as management and marketing, developed during other careers.

“My mother always told me we’re a family business, but we’re a business,” Ms. Harden said.

Saundra C. Winokur, 74, admitted that she lacked a formal plan when she founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Texas, in 1997.

“I just threw myself into it and learned on the job, though I probably would have not made as many mistakes as I did had I written a business plan,” Ms. Winokur said.

If she had written a business plan, however, she might have become discouraged.

“There were no olive orchards at the time in Texas,” she said. “It was thought that it couldn’t be done.”

Ms. Winokur, a native Texan who was a teacher and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology, traveled widely to research olive production. She noticed that renowned olive-producing regions — southern Spain, southern Italy, and Egypt — “looked a lot like Texas.” In 1997, she bought 276 acres of sandy land, which she described as “oceanfront property without the ocean.”

She planted 450 trees but lost about half in the first winter because she had not mastered irrigation. Since then, her business has flourished. In addition to producing olive oil, she owns a nursery and a restaurant. She had help; experienced farmers in the area served as mentors.

Ms. Winokur considers her teaching background a training-ground for farming. When she encountered confused children, “I could see that they were looking at me with a blank look,” she said, “then I would have to shift gears, another avenue to explain a concept to them. And I think that’s what you have to do in farming: If something doesn’t work, you have to be willing to shift.”

That lesson is not lost on Debra Sloane, who recently started a backyard farm in Washington, Conn. She suffered a blow to her self-esteem last year when Cisco Systems eliminated her position as director of global health care.

“I went through a grieving process,” said Ms. Sloane, who still uses corporate jargon such as “customer interface” when discussing farming.

After Cisco, she planned to grow exotic mushrooms. But after attending two seminars for “mushroom nerds” she scrapped the idea because of the capital investment required and her desire to work outdoors.

“You need a lab,” she said of mushroom production. “You need to have a grow room with the right temperature, humidity, air circulation, and I said, ‘Uh-uh.’”

Instead, she decided to sell produce at several farmers’ markets, manufacture a vegan cereal, and start a CSA — a community-supported agriculture program. Her 11 customers pay in advance for weekly allotments of fruit and vegetables, easing her company’s cash flow.

Ms. Sloane, who would not give her age, started working out more, because while she once managed a small staff, she now must count on herself to plant, weed, and harvest. She runs and trains at a nearby gym four times a week.

Her biggest challenge, she says, “is actually not physical but mental. It’s really figuring out how to be exact enough to know that I’m going to have enough to fill 11 bags all summer.”

Ms. Sloane forecasts a “four-figure” profit in her first year and, like most farmers, will supplement her income with a second job; she is a part-time consultant for a telemedicine technology firm.

While she acknowledges that working for a giant multinational corporation was “ego satisfying,” she says she finds that life on the farm is “soul satisfying” — and humbling, especially when she must ask for help from more experienced colleagues.

“I can tell you this,” Ms. Sloane said near her raised beds of asparagus and strawberries.

“I wasn’t humble at Cisco. My daughters have said, ‘You are so much nicer now.’ ”



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