By David Wallis
MARBLETOWN, N.Y. — STANDING at the edge of an overgrown field, Charles Noble, 65, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Mooowaaaahhh.” He hopes his bovine impression will motivate 68 cattle to follow him to a nearby creek. His herd is apparently not thirsty, preferring to munch on tall grass.
When Mr. Noble, a retired actuary and school administrator, started Movable Beast Farm with his wife in 2006, he would “get totally freaked out and have a battle of wills with the cows.” Now he reacts with calm and temporarily stops herding to avoid upsetting the animals.
“Stress is the worst thing you can do for them in terms of quality” of meat, said Mr. Noble, a trim, tanned man with a white goatee. He sells grass-fed beef primarily by word of mouth. “In order to make any money in agriculture at this scale, you really need to be direct marketing,” said Mr. Noble, whose company earned a profit for the first time last year.
But money is not his primary motivation. Mr. Noble waited much of his life to realize his cowboy dreams. “When I was younger,” he said, “I never wanted to work inside at a desk,” so, of course, he said, he spent “30 years working inside, at a desk.”
Though new agricultural enterprises typically demand long hours and physical stamina, many retirees turn to farming as a way to keep active and earn an income — or, like Mr. Noble, to at least supplement Social Security. The White House’s 2013 Economic Report of the President notes that “the average age of U.S. farmers and ranchers has been increasing over time.” One-third of beginning farmers — defined by the federal government as having been in business fewer than 10 years — “are over age 55, indicating that many farmers move into agriculture only after retiring from a different career.”
Brett Olson, co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, has noticed more gray hair at the New Farmer Summit, a conference for aspiring agrarians. Mr. Olson’s organization offers a workshop at the annual event that it used to call Young Organic Stewards but renamed New Organic Stewards in 2012 to “be more inclusive,” he said.
Local, state and federal programs devote considerable resources to promoting agricultural start-ups. Many states offer preferential tax treatment of farmland. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., compiles the various tax breaks on its online database.