Featured Coverage

Grow Your Own “Unretirement” - Minnesota Hmong on the Farm

MINNEAPOLIS--If you know any farmers, you know that, for them, retirement is an elusive concept. Nearly 29 percent of the nation’s farmers (principal operators) are 55 to 64; a third are 65-plus.

But there’s another reason for the high average age of farmers: The retire-to-farm movement.

It’s an eclectic group that includes part-time farmers; second-career farmers; semi-retired farmers; hobby farmers with a few acres; immigrants carving out a new life for themselves and their families, such as the families I recently met through the St. Paul-based Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA).

Not Only for Corporate Unretirees

Many retire-to-farm migrants rely on savings and pensions earned in a different occupation, although not all.

A look at “beginning” farmers shows one-third are 55 or older; more than 10 percent are over 65.

Some are “encore-career” farmers, people who did well in their careers and see farming as a way to enjoy their later years with a sense of purpose, in some cases with several hundred acres to plant and harvest.

“A lot of people are retiring to farm,” observes W. Michael Slattery, 68, a former international business executive in New York and Tokyo who farms in Maribel, Wisc.

But the retire-to-farm movement isn’t only for corporate unretirees who’ve harbored a dream of a rural lifestyle. Necessity pushes others into farming, including members of the Hmong community in St. Paul, Minn.

The Hmong started arriving in Minnesota in the late 1970s, mostly from refugee camps in Thailand. the Laotian Hmong, who fought for the United States in the so-called “secret war” against the North Vietnamese, and the communist Pathet Lao, fled to safety when the Vietnam War ended.

The Hmong have made enormous progress in education and income since arriving, although most are still employed in low-wage jobs. Most of them have small plots to tend, and community gardens are popular. (Hmong growers are a major presence in St. Paul’s farmers markets, selling baskets of fresh vegetables and flowers.)

Spurred by the Great Recession

The Great Recession and its aftermath hit the Hmong hard. Spurred by job losses, some in their 50s and 60s have turned to farming as a full-time occupation.

A driving force is the St. Paul-based Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), a nonprofit group founded and run by Pakou Hang.

At a HAFA graduation ceremony for 13 who completed its business-development program, several boomer-age farmers said they’d lost their job during the downturn and were now working toward becoming professional farmers.

“It’s about wealth creation. You need a business plan. You need to think long-term,” says Hang. Adds Chia Youyee Vang, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. “I think it’s a great idea.”

I met with two encore boomer farmers at the 155-acre HAFA farm growing vegetables and flowers in Vermillion Township, about 20 minutes from St. Paul. When I was there in late July, the long list of fresh produce included snap peas, cucumbers, green beans, onions, and zucchini.

There was a white clapboard, seven-bedroom farmhouse under renovation for offices and living space, a couple of used tractors and old vans parked near a barn. Working the fields were 16 farmers, with more signing up.

The Hmong farmers agree to work five or 10 acres and their lease is for 10 years — both signals that they’re taking the job seriously.

The Hmong supply farmer’s markets, but they’re so competitive that HAFA is developing alternatives. Among its initiatives is negotiating contracts with large organizations, such as the Minneapolis public schools. “We’re out to take their income to the next level,” said Hang.

Xiong Family’s Small Farm Business

One of the farmers I met was Chong Neng Xiong. On a steamy, hot day, Xiong, his wife and several of their children were preparing green onions for a St. Paul public housing project.

Xiong came to the United States in his early 30s in 1992, from a refugee camp in Thailand. He trained at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn., in woodworking. That training that led to jobs in small wood-manufacturing plants. But the jobs dried up during the downturn.

Although he still picks up some temp work during the winter, Xiong is focusing his efforts on developing a small farm business.

Is this his unretirement, I wondered. “That’s the plan,” he replied. “So long as I have my strength, I will do this farming.”

So will Judy Yang. Now in her mid-50s, she came to Minnesota at 19, in 1979, and quickly got a job in a printing plant, working her way up to a supervisor. The plant closed in 2008, however. Yang picked up other work, but nothing stable, forcing her to tap her 401(k).

When I walked over to talk to her after meeting Xiong, she was working her acreage at the farm along with her husband and a son.

Yang expects farming will define her retirement years, especially since she has learned that her second career offers a side benefit: “I have diabetes and it gets better when I am out on the farm,” she chuckled. “Farming is good for my health.”

Advice for Would-Be Farmers

Baby boomers tempted to shift into farming should bear in mind that farmland isn’t cheap and equipment is expensive. In addition, fledgling farmers face all the challenges any start-up confronts. Like most small business ventures, it takes time before money starts coming in (assuming the enterprise makes it).

“You have three to five years of really rough sailing before you can get things under control, just as with any business,” warns Slattery, 68, who’s been farming for 15 years.

It’s also a profession where the job demands a jack-of-all-trades ability.

“When you run a farm, you have to be plumber, electrician, mechanic and so on,” says former chemist and current organic Farmer David Massey, 74, “You have to be able to think for yourself and fix things because things are always going wrong.”

As with taking on any new, entrepreneurial endeavor it pays to gather information and knowledge. Massey recommends finding a mentor or two. You might also attend farm conferences and other educational gatherings and tap into classes at land grant universities.

Member organizations like HAFA, which pool expertise and resources, have a long history in agriculture and can be extremely useful to the novice.

Most important, after gathering research and information, prospective farmers need to develop a business plan. For instance, will you rent farmland or own it? How many acres can you realistically support? What markets will you sell into? Farming may be an enjoyable encore career, but it’s first and foremost a business.

My sense is that most of today’s unretirement experiments, like farming, aren’t about just money or meaning. Instead, as Massey and the Hmong farmers demonstrate, they merge income and passion.

Chris Farrell, author of the new book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, wrote a longer version of this article for the PBS Next Avenue website with support from the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace.

"Farmer Dave’s"
Organic-Farm Tips

Is the encore career trend--the idea of continuing work in later life, but with a sense of purpose--little more than marketing talk masking the ugly reality that most aging boomers can’t afford to retire and need to eke out a living well past 60?

Or is the rethinking of life’s last stage a welcome shift in expectations, built on embracing engagement, meaning, giving back and, yes, earning an income?

The truth is, for most boomers, in exploring a mix of the desire for meaningful work and the need to pocket a paycheck.

For example, at 74, “Farmer Dave” Massey, as he likes to be called, picked organic farming — a lifelong passion — for his encore career. Massey. Who worked for 34 years as a chemist for H.B. Fuller, the global adhesive manufacturer, including a year in China, retired in 1998. He turned to organic farming on land he bought early in his career, in northern Minnesota.

“I have been organic since my early 20s,” he says. “It’s a health and belief philosophy.”

Today, Massey farms about eight acres of fruits and vegetables in northern Minnesota, growing 250 varieties, including 75 kinds of heirloom tomatoes. He lives on the farm Monday through Friday and delivers to local restaurants from his home, 200 miles away, on weekends.

His wife Pamela, a first grade teacher, just retired and would prefer he didn’t work so hard. He’d like to spend more time mentoring, perhaps turning his farm into an educational resource for everyone from children to aspiring farmers.

“The chief crop I raise is awareness,” Massey says. “What I really need to do is more teaching.”

Massey isn’t farming in his 70s for the money. He gets a pension and retirement health care benefits, has an IRA and is debt-free. Anything he makes from the farm gets recycled back into the business.

Research and information is available online. Here are some sources:

• Cornell University’s Northeast Beginning Farmers Project • University of California Cooperative Extension Small Farm ProgramBeginning Farmers • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmers and Rancher’s Development Program And visit your local Cooperative Extension System office, a nationwide agricultural education network to learn about additional resources.

--Chris Farrell