Thanks to Suzy Hodgson of UVM Extension’s New Farmer Project for this story!
On average, people change careers three times in their lifetimes, and that’s not counting about ten different jobs across those careers. Whether through choice or circumstance, people are on the move to different employment opportunities, and it’s not surprising to find a number of people starting out in farming after abandoning a completely different career path. Do these new older farmers have a head start based on prior work experience?Or, do they have lots of catching up to do having spent no time on a farm and too much time in an office?
We posed these questions to several second career farmers and also asked what advice they’d give to those starting out farming later in life.
Jon Turner started out in the military and as a marine served three tours of duty. Returning home, he first found solace and meaning in writing and then turned to farming which he describes as “more of a way of life rather than a career.”
What skills and experience from the military did Jon find helpful for his new life in farming?
A good farmer has a healthy relationship with their land and is capable of recognizing patterns both good and bad. Being in the military forced me to develop an understanding of situational awareness and attention to detail. As a marine in combat, these two factors could save a life and are entirely translatable in the agricultural field. To be adaptable to change while knowing how to navigate difficult circumstances – a concept first introduced to me in boot camp 14 years ago – is everything we as farmers, as land stewards are currently being confronted by.
As Jon describes the challenges of farming on his farm, Wild Roots Farm, “Anyone can take a seed and place it into the ground. What happens afterwards will determine whether you eat a nourishing meal or not. Our first garden put me on a path to understand living systems, their relationship to each other, and our relationship with them. My desire to learn how to read the landscape and how its patterns would influence the design process followed a few years later.”
Yves Gonnet, owner of Midnight Goat Farm found himself on a different battleground. As Yves explains, “My decision to farm was by choice as a result of circumstances – my renewed sense of mortality after a bout with blindness and the new found question, ‘If not now when?’ ” Farming provided “the physical exercise of manual labor, the mental exercise of constant challenge, the depth of life and death activities, and the satisfaction of growing something delicious.”
From a career in technology and software in the 1980s, Yves brought a number of transferable skills to farming including troubleshooting, creativity, patience, inventory management, marketing, sales, customer service, accounting, procurement, vendor relations, cash management, and knowing how to learn.
As an IT entrepreneur, Yves knew how to transform and grow businesses, “it was an amazing time moving from paper to machines.” In farming, he’s finding the skills and knowledge he needs keeps growing including:
• How to save a life;
• Read the weather;
• How to grow and harvest plants;
• Curing, fertilizing, and packaging;
• Building with available materials;
• Electrical work, and plumbing; and,
• Regulatory compliance.
Terry Marron would have started her first career in farming if the conditions had been different in the 1980s. Having studied animal science in college, the career she’d imagined wasn’t there upon graduation. “In 1983 it was either big dairy or you didn’t farm; there were no niche farms,” she says. Terry found a career with the US Postal Service, which provided job security and full-time employment. After a 20-years, she was ready for change. Brushing up on her college accounting, and building on her gardening hobby, Terry discovered that her people skills from working with the public and customers prepared her well for going out to talk to local food buyers and pitching her farm product. In addition, as a postmaster, she’d been accountable for large sums of money, balancing sums daily with a computer program so moving onto Quickbooks for her farm, Windstone Farm, was a smooth transition.
All three farmers have made good use of the variety of programs offered by the network of agricultural agencies and service provider organizations in Vermont. In developing the Vermont Chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Jon learned about specific programs and resources by meeting with people at state and federal organizations including the USDA, FSA and NRCS, NOFA-VT, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAFM), UVM Extension Center of Sustainable Agriculture, among others. Terry availed herself of UVM Extension’s Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN) and New Farmer program and also tapped into UVM Ext. listservs such as Veg & Berry News to build up her skills and knowledge. Starting a small goat dairy in 2012, Yves has relied on the Dairy section of VAAFM and workshops at NOFA and is now finding the listening to his customers, vendors, other farmers, and employees are teaching him the most. Jon has a favorite book – Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway, his go-to guide for permaculture and regenerative agriculture. If you’re not in Vermont, use these examples to search for resources that could provide assistance in your area.
Since making a shift to farming, Terry, Jon, and Yves find their lives evolving. Yves was focused on business building and lifestyle and today’s he’s leaning towards self-sufficiency, sustainability and community building. Terry has recently re-evaluated the long hours she devotes to farming.
Like many jobs working at the Post Office was 9 to 5, “I closed the door, it was gone. With farming, you’re living in it, any downtime that you have it’s so easy to go out and before you know it, it’s 9 pm.” If your partner isn’t in farming, this can affect personal relationships. For me, it’s important to set up some boundaries so your partner doesn’t resent your business.”
Here are some words of wisdom which Terry, Jon, and Yves pass on for people considering a change to farming:
• Plan as well as you can, and prepare to learn the most you can from failures.
• Don’t be shy to ask for help.
• Make the most of naps. If you forgot how to nap, relearn it.
• Don’t take on too much at once: there is a lot to learn and you need the time to absorb.
• Find farmers — experts and old-timers — to speak with.
• Try to learn from other people’s experience whenever possible.
• Be safe. There are really no sick days.
• Work on someone else’s farm for one or two years.
• Don’t try to do it alone.
• Set boundaries for personal time.
• If you don’t like doing a task (e.g. payroll), hire it out.
• Have the numbers – farm viability is crucial
• Work smart not hard.
• Sing while you work.
Jon adds that for those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or other physical disabilities, farming is one of the most valuable solutions for re-integration. “Farming has provided meaning, worth, value and community, all things that we had in the military and lost once getting out,” he says.
Beyond “how-to” practical and farming preparation skills, some eureka moments have come from posing existential questions – many of us ask ourselves these questions at some point in our lives. But before plunging into farming, these questions can take on particular significance:
• What do you I enjoy the most?
• What do I need to know – or don’t I need to know?
• How much can I manage and how much do I need to control?
• Where do I want to go?
• What’s important?
In listening to Terry, Jon, and Yves, it’s clear that they’ve thought about such questions. In their own words:
We are never bored and almost always working on useful satisfying tasks. What we do is real work, which feels great. I used to work 80-100 hour weeks with little time off, now I just live.
I want to stay connected with growing.
As difficult as farming can be, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that you are taking every effort to feed your family and community.