Ron Poitras, 62, retired early after a 30-year career in energy conservation and
land-use planning. Now he's raising chickens and growing organic fruits, flowers
and other produce to sell to restaurants and at
a farmers' market not far from Acadia National Park in Maine.
summer goes by and I don't have my fingers in the dirt," says Poitras, "I just
don't feel right."
Three years ago, Norm McCoy, 50, left his career as a
systems engineer and enrolled in a new MBA program in sustainable agriculture at
Iowa State University in Ames. Last year he became the program's first graduate
and returned to his family's 40-acre organic farm near Des Moines.
"One of my
goals when I started," says McCoy, "was to take our farm and make it an example"
of how to take advantage of a small but growing trend toward healthy, locally
In an age of industrial agriculture on a global scale, the
business of growing and selling food locally seems an unlikely second career. But
a confluence of market forces and social trends is luring boomers anxious to
connect with the soil later in life.
"This is the generation that read
Rachel Carson [Silent Spring, 1962] and began looking for alternatives to
pesticides," says Elaine Marie Lipson, author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook
(McGraw-Hill Contemporary Books). "They wanted to change the world, and they did.
They're economically powerful, and they're interested in having healthy,
energetic lives. And they always will be."
Celebrity chef Alice Waters of Chez
Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and other professional foodies tapped into the trend
in the 1970s and helped accelerate it. They hooked a segment of boomers on the
taste and health advantages of fresh-from-the-farm food over products packaged
and then shipped across continents before they reach supermarket aisles.
Demand spurred supply, creating opportunities for new approaches to old
ideas about community agriculture. Instead of having to ramp up production to
achieve economies of scale to compete in a global commodities market, even
farmers can make a go of it by thinking local.
That's reflected by an uptick
in small farms—10 to 49 acres—according to the federal government's latest Census
of Agriculture. And among farmers in their jobs four years or less, 27 percent
are age 55 or older.
Meanwhile, from 1994, when the U.S. Department of
Agriculture began keeping track of farmers' markets, through 2004, their number
has more than doubled, from 1,755 to 3,706. Since 2000 alone, the number of
markets has grown by 29 percent.
Something similar is happening with
food-buying clubs called CSAs, for Community-Supported Agriculture, in which
farmers contract directly with consumers for shares of their season's crops. More
than 1,000 farms in the nation offer CSA-style contracts, according to Local
Harvest, a monitoring organization in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Farmers' markets and
CSAs have both become so mainstream that the federal government incorporates them
nutrition programs for older low-income Americans.
As food-conscious boomers
age and become even more concerned about healthy eating, and as concerns about
environmental responsibility and food security increasingly influence shopping
decisions, Americans are likely to deepen their relationships with local farmers.
In a 2004 Roper poll for a national organic farmers' cooperative, 85 percent of a
national sample of Americans said they "trust smaller-scale family farms to
produce safe, nutritious food." And 69 percent said these kinds of farms "are
more likely than large-scale industrial farms to use techniques that won't harm
For communities with farmable land, there's an economic
development incentive in local food. In 2004 farmers' markets in Iowa generated
some $31.5 million in sales and indirectly supported 146 jobs, reports the
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, where Norm McCoy got
In Burlington, Vt., which has achieved a 10-year goal of producing 10 percent
of its food locally, former Mayor Peter Clavelle says, "The result is we're
eating fresher food, most of it organically grown, and we're helping our economy.
When we started this, we had no one farming in Burlington. Now we have something
like 50 local farms."
Why is this new kind of farming made to order for
For those eager to put their hands in the dirt, it helps to have the
resources workers accumulate over time, including financial reserves. To start
his Bainbridge Islands Vineyards & Winery across Puget Sound from Seattle, Gerard
Bentryn, 66, cashed in part of his U.S. Park Service pension.
He was able to
repay his retirement nest egg. But Bentryn, who is proud that he also grows the
grapes that go into his wines and that he's part of a community of local food
producers, says profit is not his main motivation.
"If you can
see where your food comes from," he says, "you can live in beauty. I decided to
live in beauty rather than to make a lot of money."
You hear that a lot from
second-career farmers. The agriculture-related opportunities aren't limited to
working the soil. And as new networks evolve, there will be demand for business
types—like Iowa State's new MBAs—and specialists in everything from used-tractor
sales to teaching.
In New Mexico, Le Adams, 56, draws on her own 15 years
working in small-scale agriculture to teach schoolchildren about farms and
farmers in their region. Some of the motivation for running a small farm, Adams
says, "is wrapped around working in the natural environment, being in control,
making our own decisions, then being able to hold up something tangible and say,
'Look what I made.'
"Maybe one of the reasons older folks are choosing
farming is that it provides a spiritual connection that we don't get in a
Spiritual reward may be the bottom line for many boomers who
demand from their second career a sense of fulfillment that they didn't always
get from their first.
Ben Brown is a freelance writer living in Franklin,