Retirees find second career in farming

New York TimesJune 28, 2014 

RETIRE FARMING 2

Charles Noble, a retired actuary and school administrator who started Movable Beast Farm with his wife in 2006, poses with some of his cattle, in Stone Ridge, N.Y. A 2013 federal report showed that one-third of beginning farmers are over 55, and seem to take up the task after leaving a different career.

PHIL MANSFIELD — NYT

— 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 is apparently not thirsty, preferring to munch on tall grass.

When 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 reacts with calm and temporarily stops herding to avoid upsetting the animals.

“Stress is the worst thing you can do for them in terms of quality” of meat, said Noble, a trim, tanned man with a white goatee. 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 Noble, whose company earned a profit for the first time last year.

But money is not his primary motivation. 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, of course, 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 Noble, to at least 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 beginning 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. Olson’s organization offers a workshop at the annual event that it used to call Young Organic Stewards but renamed New Organic Stewards in 2012 to “be more inclusive,” he said.

Local, state and federal programs devote considerable resources to promoting agricultural startups. 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.

Saundra C. Winokur, 74, acknowledges 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,” 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.”

Winokur, a native Texan who worked as an elementary school teacher and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology, traveled extensively 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 describes as “oceanfront property without the ocean.”

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.”

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