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Monday, August 26, 2013

Retiring To The Farm Anything But Quiet

Jim Schulte and his wife, Rita, bought their 450-acre farm near Columbia, Mo., in 1991, but didn’t start farming full time until Jim finished working in the mortgage business. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

Jim Schulte and his wife, Rita, bought their 450-acre farm near Columbia, Mo., in 1991, but didn’t start farming full time until Jim finished working in the mortgage business. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

It’s not just lifelong farmers who feel the pull of the land as they get older. For some Americans, retirement is an opportunity to begin the farming dream.

“I wanted to be able to be active and have a pastime that ensured physical activity,” said beginning farmer Tom Thomas, who at 65 still has the physical fitness to wrestle and brand steers at his son’s ranch in Oklahoma.

Thomas retired two years ago after teaching exercise physiology for 35 years and he knew what he wanted to do next.

“With a farm, you’re sitting here drinking a second cup of coffee in the morning and it’s pulling at you,” Thomas said. “I walk around the farm at least twice a day. And so I’m always checking things and figuring out what needs to be done next.”

Tom Thomas retired two years ago after teaching exercise physiology for 35 years. At 65, Thomas lives on a 300-acre farm in central Missouri. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

Tom Thomas retired two years ago after teaching exercise physiology for 35 years. At 65, Thomas lives on a 300-acre farm in central Missouri. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

Most days, Thomas can be found tending corn, soybeans and other crops on 300 acres of rolling hills and wetlands he purchased near Fayette, Mo.

Retiring to the farm is fairly rare. Only 12 percent of beginning farmers are over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet Thomas’s 67-year-old brother-in-law is doing the same thing. Jim Schulte and his wife, Rita, bought their 450-acre farm near Columbia, Mo., in 1991. They moved to it from the Kansas City suburbs that same year. But full-time farming had to wait – Schulte wasn’t quite done with his suit-and-tie jobs, in the seed brokerage and mortgage businesses.

“In the early 2000s, the seed brokerage business basically was changing so dramatically and I was 55-56, and I was beginning to think, ‘I don’t think I want to do that anymore and I think I’ll just be a country farmer, a country gentleman,’” Schulte said.

Schulte finally retired in 2010. In his gold wristwatch, starched plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans he looks more businessman than farmer. Still Schulte’s been growing about 200 acres of corn and soybeans on his farm each year since “retirement.” And it suits him.

“I like to work alone and just, you know, do my thing,” he said. “I might leave in the morning and come back in the evening and not see anybody. That’s OK. I’ll see no telling what all kind of wildlife and it’s all interesting.”

0826_age-graphic1

It’s not surprising that retirees are starting their own businesses – 12 percent to 15 percent of Baby Boomers are projected to after retirement – or doing something they’re passionate about in their golden years, according to the AARP.

“A lot of them, for the rest of their lives, they don’t really need a time to wind down but to really grow and follow some passion and continue to learn,” said Bruce Koeppl, vice president of the AARP’s Midwest region. “It’s actually referred to now as an ‘age of retirement,’ where people are living their dreams, adapting, reimagining their lives.”

Not every retiree can afford the high prices of farmland or the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to purchase farm equipment. Sometimes Schulte also wonders if retiring to the farm wasn’t a bit too ambitious.

“There are times that I even now think about when you climb up on top of a grain bin to do something and you’re not 16 anymore,” Schulte said. “If you happen to slip or come off there, something’s going to break and that’s just the way it is as you get older.”

And there are never enough hours in the day to take care of every tree limb that falls down or pull up every weed growing in the ground. So Schulte just does what he can manage.

The farm work is also wearing on his brother-in-law.

“I’m probably doing more than I want to do in terms of farming and that also leads me to think about the future and how long I might want to do this,” Thomas said. “Because this was a young man’s dream.

“You know, I would want to move to a farm like this when I was 30 or 40 years old. Even though I manage it to where it’s not very stressful, it’s still more than I want to do.”

But with crop prices high, farmland is an extremely good investment. It could one day provide just the extra funds Schulte and Thomas need to get them to the next phases of their lives.

Abbie Fentress Swanson is a reporter for Harvest Public Media and KBIA in Columbia, Missouri. This story originally aired on Harvest Public Media.

“I’m probably doing more than I want to do in terms of farming,” Thomas says. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

“I’m probably doing more than I want to do in terms of farming,” Thomas says. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And, Meghna, do you like cold weather?

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

Winter wonderland, yes. Cold, no.

HOBSON: No. You're not a big fan of frigid temperatures.

CHAKRABARTI: Not a huge fan.

HOBSON: Well, then you should not buy the newest book out today, the Maine "Farmers' Almanac," out with its 197th edition today, and it includes words like piercing cold and bitterly cold to describe the upcoming winter.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, my.

HOBSON: Now, the "Almanac" forecast is based on planetary positions, sun spots and lunar cycles. It's a secret formula that scientists do not put a lot of stock in. But the "Almanac" says its forecasts are correct about 80 percent of the time, and a lot of farmers have been using it since 1818 to figure out the best time to plant crops.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I imagine that if you're in farming you want to use resources you trust because it's an occupation. It's a lifestyle that takes a lot of commitment - a lifetime of commitment.

HOBSON: A lifetime of commitment. The average age of an American farmer now creeping towards 60. It was just over 50 back in 1978. And some of those older farmers are actually newbies because for many Americans retirement is now an opportunity to begin the farming dream. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Harvest Public Media's Abbie Fentress Swanson has our story.

ABBIE FENTRESS SWANSON, BYLINE: What's your ideal picture of retirement? The beach maybe?

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES LAPPING)

SWANSON: Traveling to exotic locations?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) Come and spend your autumn years in an Indian palace.

SWANSON: Taking on a part-time job, perhaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: My name is Edward Sculten(ph). I'm a greeter at Wal-Mart.

SWANSON: How about something a little more grounded?

TOM THOMAS: These are soybeans and clover. They're going to be drilled in as soon as I can get out to plant them.

SWANSON: That's beginning farmer Tom Thomas standing atop his 6-foot-tall planter.

THOMAS: You know, I wanted to be able to be active and have a pastime that ensured physical activity.

SWANSON: At age 65, Thomas still has the physical fitness to wrestle and brand steers at his son's Oklahoma ranch. After working as an exercise physiologist, he retired two years ago, and he knew what he wanted to do.

THOMAS: With a farm, you're sitting here drinking a second cup of coffee in the morning, and it's pulling at you. You know, I walk around the farm at least twice a day. And so I'm always checking things and figuring out what needs to be done next.

SWANSON: Most days now, you'll find Thomas tending to corn, soybean, millet and bush beans on the 300 acres of rolling hills and wetlands he purchased near Fayette, Missouri. He sold his wife Susan on the idea by agreeing to build the home of her dreams in an oak grove overlooking the farm.

THOMAS: Everything you see - whether it be the lake or the barns or the driveway - we built everything.

SWANSON: Retiring to the farm is pretty rare, even as the number of farmers across the country dwindles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says only 12 percent of beginning farmers are over the age of 65. Yet Thomas' 67-year-old brother-in-law is doing the same thing. Jim Schulte and his wife, Rita, bought their 450-acre farm near Columbia, Missouri, in 1991. But full-time farming had to wait.

JIM SCHULTE: In the early 2000s, the seed brokerage business basically was changing so dramatically, and I was 55, 56, and I was beginning to think, I don't think I going to do that anymore, and I think I'll just be a country farmer, you know, a country gentleman.

SWANSON: Schulte worked in the mortgage business before retiring in 2010. In his gold wristwatch, starched plaid button-down and fairly new-looking blue jeans, he looks more businessman than farmer. Still, Schulte's been growing about 200 acres of corn and soybeans on his farm each year since retirement, and it suits him.

SCHULTE: I like to work alone and just do my thing. I might leave in the morning and come back in the evening and not see anybody, you know? That's OK. I'll see no telling what all kind of wildlife. It's all interesting.

SWANSON: The AARP says it's not surprising that retirees are filling their golden years with something they're passionate about.

BRUCE KOEPPL: A lot of them for the rest of their lives they don't really need a time to wind down, but to really grow and follow some passion and continue to learn.

SWANSON: Bruce Koeppl is vice president of the AARP's Midwest region.

KOEPPL: It's actually referred to now as an age of retirement where people are living their dreams, adapting, reimagining their lives, in fact.

SWANSON: Of course, not every retiree can afford the high prices of farmland or the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to purchase farm equipment. Sometimes Schulte also wonders if retiring to the farm wasn't a bit too ambitious.

SCHULTE: There are times that I even now think about when you climb up on top of a grain bin to do something and you're not 16 anymore, you know? If you happen to slip or come off there, something's going to break.

(LAUGHTER)

SWANSON: Schulte says there are never enough hours in the day to take care of every tree limb that falls down or pull up every weed growing in the ground. So he just does what he can manage. The farm work is also wearing on his brother-in-law.

THOMAS: It's - I'm probably doing more than I want to do in terms of farming, and that also leads me to think about the future and how long I might want to do this because this was a young man's dream. You know, I would want to move to a farm like this when I was 30 or 40 years old. Even though I manage it to where it's not very stressful, it's still more than I want to do.

SWANSON: But with crop prices high, farmland is an extremely good investment, and it could one day provide just the extra funds Schulte and Thomas need to get them to the next phases of their lives. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Abbie Fentress Swanson.

HOBSON: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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