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A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds

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

Gregor Bister | iStock | Getty Images

"Stress is the worst thing you can do for them in terms of quality" of meat, said Mr. 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 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, of course, I worked for 30 years working inside, at a desk."

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Though new agricultural enterprises typically demand long hours and physical stamina, many retirees turn to farming as a chance to keep active and earn an income — or, like Mr. 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 less 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, Minn., has noticed more gray hair at the New Farmer Summit, a conference for aspiring agrarians. Mr. 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 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.

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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, like 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.

Lisa Kivirist, who coaches novice farmers as coordinator of the Rural Women's Project at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, notes that many of her older students are poised for success. "When they come into farming at midlife or early retirement, they know there's only so many years left," Ms. Kivirist said. "There's a stronger focus and a more realistic sense of a plan."

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Saundra C. Winokur, 74, acknowledges that she lacked a formal plan when she founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Tex., 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 would have 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 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 to me." In 1997, she bought 276 acres of sandy land, which she describes as "oceanfront property without the ocean."

She planted 450 trees, but lost about half in the first winter because she had yet to master irrigation. Despite that setback, her business has flourished. In addition to producing olive oil, she owns a nursery and a restaurant. Ms. Winokur has had considerable help along the way. Experienced farmers in the area served as mentors. One neighbor briefed her on the history of her land, which was long fallow when she bought it.

She later received a $98,000 Agriculture Department Value-Added Producer Grant, which helps farmers create derivative products from crops. Ms. Winokur used the money to market her olive-leaf jelly and hire a chef. The grant "gave me that kick-start I needed to move the business to the next level," she said.

When she started her orchard, Ms. Winokur could hoist 80 pound bags on her own but she now must rely on staff to complete strenuous chores. She estimates that it took her 13 years to recruit a "first-rate" team and advises new farmers to pay well but hire carefully: "Don't hire because you're desperate, the first person who comes through the door. Really take your time."

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."

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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 like "customer interface" when discussing farming. After Cisco, she planned to grow exotic mushrooms, having received encouragement from several farm-market managers. She then took two seminars for "mushroom nerds" and scrapped the idea because of the capital investment required and her desire to work outdoors. "You need a lab," said Ms. Sloane of mushroom production. "You need to have a grow room with the right temperature, humidity, air circulation and I said, 'Uh-uh.'  "

Instead, Ms. Sloane, a petite woman in a gray long-sleeve T-shirt, jeans and bright blue plastic shoes covered in grass clippings, decided to sell produce at several farmers' markets, manufacture a vegan cereal and start a C.S.A. — a community-supported agriculture program. Her 11 customers paid in advance for weekly allotments of fruit and vegetables, easing her company's cash flow.

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Ms. Sloane, who declined to give her age, also 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 twice a week and trains at a nearby CrossFit gym four times a week. Her biggest challenge, she predicts, "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."

She forecasts a "four-figure" profit in her first year and, like a majority of farmers, will supplement her agricultural income with a second job; she is working part-time as a consultant for Avizia Inc., a telemedicine technology company.

She acknowledges that working for a giant multinational corporation was "ego satisfying," but 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," she 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.'   "

—By David Wallis, The New York Times

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