Second-career farmers bring life experience to the field
By Lindsay Rebhan
An exciting new sector of the expanding agrarian movement is ‘second career’ farmers. These people are finding their way to the farm despite not having farming backgrounds.
According to the 2013 Economic Report of the President, Challenges and Opportunities in U.S. Agriculture, one-third of beginning farmers are over age 55, which highlights the fact that many farmers move into agriculture only after retiring from a different career. These 40-, 50-, 60-something new farmers have life experience and often some savings to start with, alleviating a few of the hurdles to enter farming.
Jamie and David Baker of Primrose Valley Farm in Belleville, Wis. are shining examples of second career farmers. The Bakers purchased their farm in 2008 and began readying it for production right away. “Neither of us were born into farming, but the way of life wasn’t foreign to me,” Jamie said. “My grandparents were farmers and I grew up visiting their farm, it was my favorite place to be.” David grew up on the south side of Chicago. Before farming, both had corporate careers.
Jamie’s career began in accounting and technology and progressed to combine the two as a technology consultant focusing on financial systems. She retired from her life on the road to raise their four children, and returned to work after the youngest went off to school. David founded and chaired an international management and technology consulting firm that did everything from cable plant designs for buildings to system selection and implementation.
The Bakers have always shared a passion for healthy, local food and its role in family and community. They knew they wanted to leave the city eventually. In 2007, David sold his business to make the leap toward their farm dreams. Jamie explained that the jump from city salary to rural entrepreneur farmer “felt very natural, because we’re outdoor-seasoned and very goal-oriented. The community was also very natural to us, and in our five+ years, we’ve made many friends within the area. Our CSA (community support agriculture) memberships stemmed from our community relationships and involvement.”
“Purchasing land was a different process than if we were doing it in our 20s,” Jamie said. “I wanted a certain character, growing up in the mountains of Colorado, we wanted some topography, rolling hills and trees. I did not want a lot of cars driving past us off a busy county road. I wanted to feel off the beaten path, but still close to community.”
Soil health was also a driving factor. “We did soil tests to make sure it was adequate for vegetable farming. History of the land was important. We knew we wanted to do organic. We didn’t want to wait three years to certify. This land had laid fallow since 1982, prior to that it was used to finish grassfed beef, prior to that was before chemical use began,” Jamie explained. The Bakers are only the third owners of this property.
They used their Chicago roots for their market. “Having lived in Chicago, we planned for our direct market to be Chicago,” Jamie said. “We wanted to make sure we were less than 200 miles from the city. We ended up finding land 135 miles from Chicago. We didn’t originally envision offering shares to Wisconsin however, this has become our community, too, and we want to bring healthy produce to both.”
Ramping up farming knowledge is paramount when making such a life shift. “We had taken the beginning farmer class through University of Wisconsin-Madison. The recommendation was we start doing farmers markets before CSA, which is wise for many. For us, we delved straight into CSA farming. We had slow planned growth for our CSA, so we would never be in a position that would be disappointing.”
Primrose Valley Farm is very much fashioned out of the Bakers’ experiences in the corporate world. They are weaving their previous life skills and perspectives into their current farming reality. Process and workflow are oriented with food quality and food safety in the forefront. “We’ve built much of our own equipment based on some out-of-the-box thinking. The organizations that were the most helpful resources for us were UW-Madison, Michael Field’s Agricultural Institute and MOSES. We are associated with several farming groups, such as Fairshare CSA Coalition, Women in Sustainable Agriculture, Women Food and Agriculture Network and other local food networks,” Jamie noted.
The Bakers were in a position to quickly increase their on-site infrastructure when first starting to farm. They bought 83 acres of land with a house, corncrib and 100-year-old barn. Jamie explained the many improvements they made: “We built a maintenance shed and used that as a makeshift pack shed, then put in the greenhouse, hoop house and chicken coop. We re-roofed the barn and corncrib. We brought power to the farm underground. The original wiring was so low that our equipment couldn’t go under it. This was a fortunate move—when we took out the wires, the old poles just fell down. It was time!”
The Bakers also added a feature not found on many farms: a 14,000-square-foot pack house with a commercial kitchen for CSA members and a community room on the second level. “As we were constructing it, people in the community asked if they could host events there, too,” Jamie added. “So we built it for both communities.”
Primrose Valley Farm now grows 75 different varieties of produce, with approximately 20 acres in production. “Every season comes with its own unique challenges. This past year, it was the heavy spring rains,” Jamie explained. “We had a very successful 2013 season serving 300 CSA members. This last summer, we had 11 farm staff plus us.” Their farm plan includes CSA memberships, a farm stand, farmers market and restaurants. They have built diversity into their business plan by having multiple revenue streams.
“One other aspect of our business plan that provides diversity is hosting events in our community center such as weddings, business meetings/retreats, and the New Farmer Summit being held here this April 4-5th,” Jamie added.
Jamie and David describe their farming model as one that strives to combine the wisdom of the past with recent innovations in sustainable initiatives that respect our planet’s resources. “We have a strong commitment to social justice, workers’ rights and respect for soil and animals. Each of these breaks down into different components, from a fair wage to respectful and thoughtful farming methods,” Jamie noted. “The vision is that we will be able to serve as a source of information, ideas and resources to the community about food and its role in our lives, and to play a conscious role in helping to ‘repair the world’ through advancing and improving our food system.”
They see many parallels between their corporate experience and farming, with one exception—“In the corporate world, the work is often highly specialized. When you are a farmer, you basically have to do everything,” Jamie explained. She and David both learned about all aspects of their farm business and then divided up the labor. “I do the crops and David takes more of the facilities and infrastructure. We both do business pieces for those areas and then work together for our overall business plan,” she added.
They have learned many lessons since 2008. Their advice to other new farmers: be a part of the community, and have a business plan, as it will provide you focus and direction. Manage your growth and your risks. Make sure you’re well capitalized; budget and plan for contingencies, and above all, keep good records.
If you are a new or aspiring farmer who would like to meet others new to farming – please join us for the New Farmer Summit April 4-5, 2014 at Primrose Valley Farm!
Lindsay Rebhan (firstname.lastname@example.org) works with Renewing the Countryside on the New Organic Stewards project, in partnership with MOSES.