Saturday, May 18, 2013
Maine farming has a big problem: Farmers are getting older and their land will be going on the market as they retire or die.
Despite an influx of younger farmers in the last decade, the average age of a farmer in Maine is 56. The average age of a Maine dairy or potato farmer is probably a lot older than that.
And, realistically, about 400,000 acres — most of that dairy and potato ground — is probably going to change hands within the next 20 years. That transfer most likely will be into commercial or residential development, unless a new generation of farmers steps in to save our farmland.
While there is a corresponding increase of young people getting into farming, particularly small organic farms, most young people can’t afford a 500-acre dairy or potato farm, or even a piece of one. They’re still paying off their college loans and working at low-wage jobs.
How about this for a solution: Non-farmers (like me, and possibly you) should retire into farming.
I started farming part time six years ago when I was 60, and full-time farming four years ago when I began drawing Social Security at age 62.
Here are the advantages:
• You’ve already had a career (or two or three careers), so why not settle down and actually do something productive, like make good food?
• You have been able to build equity and savings, so you can actually afford to buy a farm, unlike most prospective young farmers.
• You (like me) already have been through your financial disasters (having children, putting them through colleges, getting divorced), and you still may have enough to make a down payment on a modest farm.
• You probably need to get back in shape after four decades as a desk jockey, or some other sedentary enterprise. Farming — my kind of farming using only hand tools — can do that for you. In four years, I’ve managed to get back to my high school weight of 160. Too bad my height dropped an inch to 6’1”.
• You have a secret weapon that others don’t have: Your pension, Social Security income and health insurance through Medicare. Don’t expect your farm operation to balance the budget for a number of years. Our farm is about 50-50 for on-farm versus non-farm income right now, after six years of effort. Health insurance? I don’t know of any young farmers who can afford it.
• You will always have something to do, every day, every week, every month. We start at 6 a.m. and stop at 4:30-5 p.m. Choose your own pace.
We all know Maine has one of the oldest populations in the country, which means a lot of us are in retirement or close to it.
And we all know what happens when couples go from having fast-paced, interesting jobs to becoming retirees: They get in each other’s way; they sit around; they volunteer for marginally worthy causes. Most of all they get on each other’s nerves.
That is not a healthy situation, nor is it a fitting end to what may have been an interesting and worthwhile life.
Here’s what to do:
• Join Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the best small farm association in the country (www.mofga.org). Learn how to farm from its publications, programs and events. MOFGA is our source of knowledge, and it provides us with young labor through its Apprentice Program.
• Check out your own property. If you have a sunny half-acre of passable soil, you can easily feed yourselves and a dozen other families with the food you can produce on that amount of land. Banish the lawn!
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