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Becoming a Farmer In Retirement

Whether you'll do it for love, money or both, remember: It's a business

By Chris Farrell

A critical confusion at the core of the “Unretirement,” work longer, encore career movement — pick your favorite euphemism — is choice versus necessity.

Is the encore trend little more than marketing talk masking the ugly reality that most aging boomers can’t afford to retire and need to eke out a living well past 60? Or is the rethinking of life’s last stage a welcome shift in expectations, built on embracing engagement, meaning, giving back and, yes, earning an income?

Truth is, for most boomers, the exploration is a mix of the desire for meaningful work and the need to pocket a paycheck.

(MORE: America Needs More Farmers)

Farming as an Encore Career

One of the oldest occupations (not that one) nicely shows the dialectical tension and illustrates an optimistic cocktail of motives behind the Unretirement movement: Farming.

If you know any farmers, you know that, for them, retirement is an elusive concept. Nearly 29 percent of the nation’s farmers (principal operators) are 55 to 64; a third are 65+.

But there’s another reason for the high average age of farmers: The retire-to-farm movement (or, as my editor quipped, digging in for retirement).

It’s an eclectic group that includes part-time farmers; second-career farmers; semi-retired farmers; hobby farmers with a few acres; encore-career farmers with several hundred acres; immigrants carving out a new life for themselves and their families and others. Many retire-to-farm migrants rely on savings and pensions earned in a different occupation, although not all.

A look at “beginning” farmers shows one-third are 55 or older; more than 10 percent are over 65.

“A lot of people are retiring to farm,” observes W. Michael Slattery, a former international business executive in New York and Tokyo who farms in Maribel, Wisc.
"Farmer Dave": A Passion for Organics

Among them is 74-year-old David Massey or, as he likes to be called, “Farmer Dave.” Massey picked organic farming — a lifelong passion — for his encore career.

I recently met him at his home in White Bear Lake, Minn. Massey’s gardens were blooming and his house was full of plants. After we talked, he planned to deliver four boxes of heirloom tomatoes to a local organic restaurant.

Massey left the University of Minnesota in 1965 without a degree to start his career as a chemist at H.B. Fuller, the global adhesive manufacturer. He worked there for 34 years, mostly as a troubleshooter, including a year in China improving operations at a joint venture. Massey loved his job but, unhappy with new management, retired in 1998 at 58 and turned to organic farming. (He had bought some farmland early in his career, in northern Minnesota, with a sense that it would pay off at some point.)

(MORE: Shifting From Full-Time Work to Part-Time)

“I have been organic since my early 20s,” he says. “It’s a health and belief philosophy.”

Today, Massey farms about eight acres of fruits and vegetables in northern Minnesota, growing 250 varieties, including 75 kinds of heirloom tomatoes. He lives on the farm Monday through Friday and delivers to local restaurants from his home, 200 miles away, on weekends.

His wife Pamela, a first grade teacher, just retired and would prefer he didn’t work so hard. He’d like to spend more time mentoring, perhaps turning his farm into an educational resource for everyone from children to aspiring farmers.

“The chief crop I raise is awareness,” Massey says. “What I really need to do is more teaching.”

Massey isn’t farming in his 70s for the money. He gets a pension and retirement healthcare benefits from Fuller, has an IRA and is debt-free. Anything he makes from the farm gets recycled back into the business. “Money is not my major motivation,” he says. “But I don’t want to lose money.”

The Hmong Farmers of Minnesota

The retire-to-farm movement isn’t only for corporate refugees who’ve harbored a dream of a rural lifestyle. Necessity pushes others into farming, including members of the Hmong community in St. Paul, Minn.

The Hmong started arriving in Minnesota in the late 1970s, mostly from refugee camps in Thailand. The Laotian Hmong, who fought for the U.S. in the so-called “secret war” against the North Vietnamese and the communist Pathet Lao, fled to safety when the Vietnam War ended.

The Hmong have made enormous progress in education and income since arriving, although most are still employed in low-wage jobs. Most of them have small plots to tend, and community gardens are popular. (Hmong growers are a major presence in St. Paul’s farmers markets, selling baskets of fresh vegetables and flowers.)

The Great Recession and its aftermath hit the Hmong hard. Spurred by job losses, some in their 50s and 60s have turned to farming as a full-time occupation. A driving force is the St. Paul-based Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), a nonprofit group founded and run by Pakou Hang.

At a HAFA graduation ceremony for 13 who completed its business development program, several boomer-age farmers said they’d lost their job during the downturn and were now working toward becoming professional farmers. “It’s about wealth creation. You need a business plan. You need to think long-term,” says Hang. Adds Chia Youyee Vang, historian at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee: “I think it’s a great idea.”

I met with two encore boomer farmers at the 155-acre HAFA farm growing vegetables and flowers in Vermillion Township, about 20 minutes from St. Paul. When I was there in late July, the long list of fresh produce included snap peas, cucumbers, green beans, onions, and zucchini. There was a white clapboard, seven-bedroom farmhouse under renovation (for offices and living space), a couple of used tractors and old vans parked near a barn. The fields were worked by 16 farmers, with more signing up.

The Hmong farmers agree to work five or 10 acres and their lease is for 10 years — both signals that they’re taking the job seriously.

The Hmong supply farmer markets, but they’re so competitive that HAFA is developing alternative markets. Among its initiatives is negotiating contracts with large organizations, such as the Minneapolis public schools. “We’re out to take their income to the next level,” says Hang.


Xiong: Developing a Small Farm Business

One of the encore farmers I met was Chong Neng Xiong. On a steamy, hot day, Xiong, his wife and several of their children were preparing green onions for a St. Paul public housing project.

Xiong came to the U.S. in his early 30s in 1992 from a refugee camp in Thailand. He trained at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. in woodworking, training that led to jobs in small wood manufacturing plants. But the jobs dried up during the downturn. Although he still picks up some temp work during the winter, Xiong is focusing his efforts on developing a small farm business.

Is this his Unretirement, I wondered. “That’s the plan,” he replied. “So long as I have my strength, I will do this farming.”

Yang: Her Surprise Benefit From Farming

So will Judy Yang. Now in her mid-50s, she came to Minnesota at 19, in 1979, and quickly got a job in a printing plant, working her way up to a supervisor. The plant closed in 2008, however. Yang picked up other work, but nothing stable, forcing her to tap her 401(k).

When I walked over to talk to her after meeting Xiong, she was working her acreage at the farm along with her husband and a son. Yang expects farming will define her retirement years, especially since she has learned that her second career offers a side benefit: “I have diabetes and it gets better when I am out on the farm,” she chuckles. “Farming is good for my health.”

Advice for Would-Be Farmers

Are you a boomer tempted to shift into farming?

Bear in mind that farmland isn’t cheap and equipment is expensive, two widely cited barriers to entry. In addition, fledgling farmers face all the challenges any start-up confronts. Like most small business ventures, it takes time before money starts coming in (assuming the enterprise makes it).

“You have three to five years of really rough sailing before you can get things under control, just as with any business,” warns Slattery, 68, who’s been farming for 15 years.

It’s also a profession where the job demands a jack-of-all-trades ability.

“When you run a farm, you have to be plumber, electrician, mechanic and so on,” says Massey. “You have to be able to think for yourself and fix things because things are always going wrong.”

As with taking on any new, entrepreneurial endeavor it pays to gather information and knowledge. Massey recommends finding a mentor or two. You might also attend farm conferences and other educational gatherings and tap into classes at land grant universities.

Member organizations like HAFA that pool expertise and resources have a long history in agriculture and can be extremely useful to the novice. You can gather research and information from your computer at sites like Cornell University’s Northeast Beginning Farmers Project, the University of California Cooperative Extension Small Farm Program and Beginning Farmers: an online resource for farmers, researchers and policymakers.

The USDA also runs a program funded through 2018 to help beginning farmers and ranchers get started. You can also visit your local Cooperative Extension System office, a nationwide agricultural education network to learn about additional resources.

Most important: you’ll need to develop a business plan. For instance, will you rent farmland or own it? How many acres can you realistically support? What markets will you sell into? Farming may be an enjoyable encore career, but it’s first and foremost a business.

My sense is that most of today’s Unretirement experiments, like farming, aren’t about just money or meaning. Instead, as Massey and the Hmong farmers demonstrate, they merge income and passion.

Chris Farrell wrote this article with support from the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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