Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Boomers Take Up the Plow

08/05/2010

Laura Tillman Jack Moffitt was a high-powered attorney before he became an organic farmer. A wave of boomers is finding a compelling lifestyle and a few extra bucks farming.

A former Dallas attorney sells sprouts under the cover of a white tarp and a fraying straw hat. A former graphic designer plops candy striped beets on a Mexican tablecloth dotted with purple and gold figures, while a U.S. Customs agent gives a customer advice on cooking eggplant. 

It's just another weekend at the farmers' market in Harlingen, Texas. Here, in the Rio Grande Valley, baby boomer generation professionals have traded in their desk jobs for a different kind of retirement. 

From their 40s through their 60s, farmers like Kalman Morris spend most of their days working the few acres of land outside of humble homes to supplement their income with work they believe in. It’s all made possible by three new farmers' markets that have sprung up over the past two years.

Yes, these farmers can make some money. But more importantly, farmers like Morris enjoy the life they’re living more than the office jobs they’ve left behind. 

The economic margins Morris lives within are narrow. He couldn't realistically afford to live this way if it weren't for the money he's banked from time spent in a more lucrative industry — graphic design.

The impact the farmers here are making on the industry may be small — cotton, sorghum and corn still dominate the area's fields — but they believe they're sowing the seeds of bigger change.

"One of the things that I believe in is the power of many small things," Morris said. "Stronger bonds are made between things with many parts — even though the power of each is not significant, it's the strongest bond you can create. It seems to me that in a large sense America has it all wrong: the American concept of bigger is better is not correct. You end up with things that are too big to fail."

Morris is joined at the Harlingen market by a group of farmers who have taken related paths. Jack Moffitt of Bayview Veggies was a high-powered attorney. Moffitt's partner, Rhonda Recio, has kept her day job as a banker, but plans to eventually transition to farming full time.

Diana Padilla of Yahweh's All Natural Farm and Garden, is a U.S. Customs agent and her husband, Saul, was a truck driver.

The confluence of semi-retired, newbie farmers seems to be more by accident than design. But a cheap cost of living, inexpensive plots of land, natural beauty and a long growing season have brought many of these folks to an area that is just beginning to adopt greener ways of living.

The first of the farmers' markets was started in Brownsville, where a group of public health students aimed to bring affordable, fresh produce to an unhealthy population. (High rates of diabetes and obesity plague this largely low-income population along the Texas-Mexico border.)

Vendors here make between $100 and $400 per week between three farmers' markets, depending on the season. Safety nets stitched in other careers allow these baby boomers to buy a new truck when the old one breaks down, or purchase a piece of property.

These new farmers are finding new markets. The Padillas are crafting plans to sell directly to subscribers through a Community Supported Agriculture program and Moffitt and Recio are selling some products to a Brownsville restaurant. But the miles between farms and consumers are many, making it expensive and time consuming to hustle bushels of low-cost produce across the Rio Grande Valley. Laura Tillman Carrots growing on the Moffitt farm.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say there is little hard data on the number of Baby Boomers using organic agriculture to subsidize their retirement. The movement can be tough to track, since not all farmers decide to go through the process of becoming certified organic, either because of its restrictions or the expense (about $750). Agriculture census data therefore wouldn't register some of these farms as organic, even though many of them follow organic practices.

John Cromartie, a geographer with the Resources and Rural Economics Division of the USDA, recently wrote a report on baby boomer movement to rural areas, but said he did not specifically look at a farming component of this migration.

"There's a hobby farm movement, but that isn't to subsidize income, that's just about fun," Cromartie said. Generally, boomers begin gardening, keep horses, chickens and cows, and use farming as a form of relaxation and a source of extra food rather than employment.

What’s going on in the Rio Grande Valley doesn’t surprise Brad Stufflebeam, former president of Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA). Stufflebeam says many of those who attend TOFGA’s annual conferences are baby boomers. They dabble in farming with mixed results. 

“The ones that are successful are the ones that choose to do it as a lifestyle,” Stufflebeam said, taking a break from work at his farm in the Houston area, Home Sweet Farm. “The ones I see failing are the ones who have money, buy land, and hire help to do the work. I see those failing. The reason is you have to be deeply involved and its very management intensive.”

For Rio Grande Valley farmers, it is definitely about love — not money.

Current TOFGA Board Member Sabino Cortez says he's glad to hear that the organic farming movement is being pushed along by these determined farmers. But Cortez is more interested in large-scale results than niche groups.

"We need to show that organic farming practices are best management practices, period," Cortez said. "As we lower input costs, soil fertility increases, disease, drought and insect problems diminish."

The moment is ripe for a large-scale organic movement, Cortez added, and he believes change can only happen on that scale if it makes sense from a profit-driven perspective. If organic practices are cheaper and better in the long term, conventional growers will begin to adopt them.

"I've seen this thing come up and get going and then die down," Cortez said. "I don't think it’s going away this time. There wasn't any mass appeal before. You have to start taking a different look at it: we're doing this because this is what makes sense. It's the best management practice. I think it's here to stay this time."