Green Acres is the place for me
February 20, 2014 4:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm turning 30 this year. My husband and I are discussing a retirement plan that includes a farm in South Carolina. Can you recommend some resources (blogs, persons willing to email, books, etc) so that we can make an informed decision about whether to do this and what sort of financial planning we'll have to do to make it happen?

Our goal is to purchase a home with 40-100 acres, and either develop portions of it ourselves or maintain the current status. We are interested in fruit/vegetables, less interested in livestock, and would be more focused on being self-sustaining & sharing with friends/neighbors than on selling our harvests. I am currently a person who likes to garden - what experiences and knowledge should I seek out over the next 25-30 years if I want this plan to be successful?

I have read MonkeyToes's excellent comment and a few previous farming-related questions, but I have a wrinkle:We currently live in Ohio, with very different soil/climate than our preferred retirement locations, so WOOFF-ing or volunteering is a less workable idea.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Soils vary in south Carolina too. Land is cheap in many parts of SC right now, might not be in 30 years, consider buying land now. The cost of living in most of SC is pretty low now, might not be in 30 years. Why are you focusing on SC?

Are you familiar with cooperative Extension? Here's a link to them in South Carolina.

In many states the local Cooperative extension office offers programs that teach aspects of horticulture and lead to a certificate as a Master Gardener. You're in Cleveland? Here's a very interesting program that might need volunteers. Sure, climates and soils differ but basic skills are the same.

I work for the state of SC as a reference librarian, feel free to contact me with any SC questions.
posted by mareli at 5:23 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hi. IANAF but my family's home is in rural South Carolina on a plot of land about the size you are looking for. I grew up there. Until my grandfather passed a few years ago, he gardened quite a bit and raised mostly vegetables, berries, and some fruit - enough so that my grandparents stocked their chest freezer and had plenty to share with the family (and as for the pears - there were so many we would try to give them to anyone who stopped by). The biggest issue was irrigation - we have a well, a creek, and a pump and in many summers, this was essential. Many parts of SC can get very hot for prolonged periods and sometimes rain just barely misses you for weeks at a time.

When I was young, my great-grandparents raised chickens and before that (I don't remember but my mom does) there were pigs and a few cows.

The land isn't coastal and right now, it's very cheap. Put it this way, I'm going to inherit a chunk of that land, and I don't consider it at all as part of my retirement planning.

mareli is spot on about the soils and the Clemson Extension. My grandad was a master gardener and a volunteer there. They have many great resources and are all around awesome. If you want more amateur but local opinions and expereinces, feel free to me mail me.
posted by pointystick at 5:40 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm happy that you're thinking ahead. Enjoying the garden is a great start -- have you taken advantage of your country's ag extension classes? Terrific for giving a 101-overview of niche topics, and will give you the opportunity to meet like-minded folks in your area. Do you have a statewide organization like Pennsylvania's PASA? If so, try to get to a conference, or at least get on their mailing list.

The future is the future, but a wonderful skill to develop *now* is canning. (Your extension office may offer classes.) Lehman's sells a basic water bath kit; your local hardware stores may also carry gear. I recommend the Ball Book of Complete Book of Home Preserving. Canning is a terrific way to use up your tomatoes! Buy what you like but don't grow from local farmers and put up the bounty.

Experiment with dehydrating, seed saving, building up a pantry and using your freezer efficiently. The Storey’s Country Wisdom Bulletins make great, quick introductions to a variety of self-sufficiency skills; here are the gardening selections. Learn to use low-tech materials in the garden -- like old windows for cold frames. Read up on companion planting, maintain a compost pile/barrel, learn to start plants from seed. Keep a rain barrel. Learn about planting to control pests. Plant to encourage bees, and ask your extension to offer a short course on easy ways to support various types of bees.

Run a small stand to sell your veggies, or try a couple of days at a local market/auction/community event. My (then) 9-year-old ran an honor system pumpkin stand last fall and was able to buy himself a big Lego set.

Volunteer at the county fair and get to know farm people. Learn First Aid. Love skills for their own sake; love to learn, learn to meet emergencies calmly, calmly continue after disaster. Become active in your community, because it will give you practice at pitching in when you're needed. Become self-sufficient in as many ways as you can, but know that everybody pulls together. It's not a lifestyle, it's a life.

Please feel free to MeMail me.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Not to be a crazy climate change conspiracy theorist or anything, but I think making a plan today to farm in a specific location in 30 years from now is... a bit rosy. Personally, were this my dream, I would focus on financial planning (I'd want to have my house paid off with the plan to sell it and buy elsewhere with the proceeds) and on transportable skills via my Extension office, and be open to where we might end up in three decades.

With that in mind, I wouldn't dismiss WOOFing. The labour for a 40 - 100 acre farm is not going to be like the labour in your garden, even a big garden, and I think some hands-on farming experience is going to be essential to refining your planning. This is doubly true as you are planning to farm while retirement aged.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:53 AM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Aha! I once had a similar dream. (To back up DarlingBri's comment, be open to the idea that your priorities may change. That is, plan for this future and make it your mission right now, but be aware that it's very hard to predict what the Future You will actually want.)

I found that Countryside magazine was one of the best ways to get a feel for what this sort of lifestyle really entailed. This publication is largely written by readers, all of whom are into the farming/homesteading lifestyle. They share their experiences and expertise with real-world situations. It's great stuff.

As for the financial planning stuff, I can address that too. (I'm a personal-finance writer by trade.)

I'm not going to go deep into the theory behind any of this stuff, but my advice to you is:

Begin saving as much as you can as soon as you can. The two factors that make the biggest difference in how much you'll have saved in retirement (or at any point, really) are how much you've contributed and how long you've been contributing. Your investment returns do contribute to the final number, but they're not nearly as important as saving early and often.

What is early? Well, now. Start saving now. Not much more to say about that.

How much should you save? Most traditional advice is to save ten or twenty percent of your income, and for years I've spouted that line too. In the past few months, however, I've come to realize that this advice is inadequate. If you save just ten or twenty percent of your income, it'll take you forty years to have enough accumulated to retire (or to pursue whatever goal you have).

Instead, aim to save fifty percent of your income. Seventy percent is even better. If you can save at this rate, you'll be retiring to your farm in South Carolina in ten or fifteen years instead of forty. The math behind this is shockingly simple, yet most people miss it. And most people complain that they could never save fifty or seventy percent of their income. Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who do manage this amazing feat. These industrious folks quietly retire at age 35 while their peers continue to say that it can't be done (all while buying into the modern adult lifestyle).

How do you achieve such a high saving rate? There are only two things you can do to boost it: spend less or earn more. You should do both. When most people try to cut spending, they focus on the small, easy stuff like clipping coupons. That's great -- and you should definitely do that -- but you'll have a greater impact on your bottom line if you go for big wins. Housing and transportation are the biggest expenses (by far) in the budgets of most Americans. If instead of spending the average 33% on housing, you spend (say) just 15% of your take-home pay on housing, you'll save a ton. And if you can live without a car (or with a beater), you'll save a second ton. Meanwhile, finding ways to boost your income will also accelerate your savings.

Where do you put these buckets of money you're now earning? Tuck it all into a low-cost stock-market index fund, such as VTSMX or FSTMX. Maybe add a total bond index fund too. Resist the urge to own more. Resist the urge to move money in and out of the market. Ignore the financial news. Ignore what your friends are doing with their investments. Just funnel your money into these funds and stand pat for the ten or fifteen or twenty years that you're accumulating cash to afford your farm.

If you do these things -- slash housing and transportation expenses, boost income, invest in index funds and leave the money alone -- you should be able to build a sizable nest egg in half the time you're planning to spend on the project. During that time, keep dreaming the dream and building your skillbase.

If you want moral support while trying to save fifty or seventy percent of your income (your friends and family will think you're crazy and say that it can't be done), read Mr. Money Mustache, Early Retirement Extreme, and Afford Anything. I'd recommend my own blog too (Get Rich Slowly), but sadly the focus isn't on this sort of financial behavior -- it's more geared toward those in the modern adult lifestyle.

As for books? Check out Early Retirement Extreme, Your Money or Your Life, Cashing in on the American Dream, and How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. (The latter isn't about money but philosophy. Ignore the libertarian politics and focus on the personal behavior stuff.)

There. You've just received the sum of the financial wisdom I've accumulated over the past decade of reading and writing about personal finance. Put it to use, and you'll have your farm sooner than you think!
posted by jdroth at 6:33 AM on February 20, 2014 [22 favorites]

I think this is a lovely idea, and don't have much in the way of farming advice for you, but I would encourage you to consider what would happen if either or both of you are not in good shape physically in 25-30 years. Or, as is likely, in 40 or 50? Would you rent out the land? (Would it have any kind of value?) Would you be somewhere proximate to healthcare and groceries? Transportation if you couldn't drive? (I do think that self-driving cars may be a reality by then, but just in case they're not!). A farm, even a very small farm, is a lot of work. There are hale and hearty seniors, and then there are many who are mildly or seriously disabled or ill. I don't want to discourage you from pursuing your dream, just to think through its shelf-life, and what you would do if it didn't work out.
posted by chocotaco at 6:56 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

How did you arrive at the 40-100 acres figure? How much of it do you plan to have as orchard, how much row crops, how much pasture, how much forest, etc.? The skills you'll need if you want 10 acres of vegetables may be different from what you'll need for half an acre.

Do you plan on having *any* livestock? If not, how do you plan to fertilize? If you will need to bring in nutrients from off the farm, but can produce hay or grain, you may want to add livestock to your system for fertilization nutrients, if nothing else.

But if you would have to buy feed for them, that's not that much different than buying fertilizer, so you don't necessarily gain anything. Except livestock also produce other goods (meat, fiber, eggs, brush clearing, sod turnover or waste disposal [pigs are great for these]) in addition to fertilizer, so that may alter your equation.

You might want to look into the concept of permaculture.
posted by librarina at 9:26 AM on February 20, 2014

Not to derail, but farming is something that people usually retire from not retire to. As I'm sure MonkeyToes can attest better than I, it's very physically demanding. Sure, there are people who do it well into their 70s, but if it's not something you've spent the previous 40 years doing full time, even picking it up as a hobby at 65 could be pretty difficult.

Taking up gardening, even fairly intensive gardening, is probably a lot more realistic than jumping into a 40-100 acre spread. That's a lot of work.

All of that being said, I completely agree with MonkeyToes about canning, even if you're not going to grow anything yourself. My wife and I grew tomatoes for the first time last year, and with that plus buying chicken from a local butcher,* keeping an eye out for vegetable sales, and getting apple seconds from a local orchard, I think I laid down two shelves' worth of food in only half a dozen or so canning sessions last summer/fall. In addition to preservation and economy, canning winds up front-loading your cooking time. Especially with the meat. Having a bunch of pre-cooked chicken around makes things like soup, chicken salad, etc. a lot more convenient. Dinner can be ready in 30 minutes instead of 90.

We're hoping to double or triple our canning output this year.

*Shout out to Karn's for those in central PA!
posted by valkyryn at 9:32 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you recommend some resources (blogs, persons willing to email, books, etc)
Gardening is an intro, but I'd take some ag. courses. Ohio has lots of agriculture education. I didn't google deeply, but here are some options. Your county's Coop Extension Service, listed in the phone book, is an excellent resource, as noted above.

If you can buy land someplace where there is good soil and water, that seems like a good idea. You might be able to rent the land to someone who wants to actively farm it, grow hay, pasture horses or cattle, etc. Being able to look carefully and take time to buy means you can find what you want affordably. Why not start soon? You could have a big garden and chickens on not a lot of space. I know someone who keeps goats for milk as well as entertainment.
posted by theora55 at 10:18 AM on February 20, 2014

One of the biggest challenges for us, and we only have 10 acres, is the amount of manual labor it requires. I'm 46 and my husband is 52. We are in okay shape. Even just maintaining the property, not developing it, is a lot of work. Repairing fencing requires a lot of hours. Even if you don't have livestock, your neighbors might and and those animals might knock down the fences. Sometimes trees fall and knock down the fences. They'll need to be cut up and moved/split for firewood. And then there's all the regular house maintenance. And then the gardening/farming. And then the canning/dehydrating/freezing.

My comments aren't meant to put you off - really. My best suggestions for preparing is to stay in the best possible physical condition to be able to handle the physical labor at 55-60+. And the suggestions about saving money is really valuable, too. It would have been really nice to be able to pay someone to dig the 500 foot long trench in our clay soil when we had to replace the electrical line for the well.

I wouldn't trade our property for anything but I wish I was in better physical condition and/or had a chunk of money set aside to pay someone to do the bigger jobs.
posted by Beti at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

IANAF either, but remember that a farm requires pretty much daily attention. Animals need to be fed, crops need to be weeded, irrigated, harvested, planted, etc. Can you vacation on a working farm and assess whether this lifestyle fits the present or future you? How much stamina do your parents have? Will your later years resemble theirs? Can you foresee taking on daily maintenance in your retirement ages?
posted by Cranberry at 11:13 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Did you see wwax's question from earlier today about gardening blogs?

Beti's comments resonate. Injured my knee last weekend, helping a neighbor with a horse, and yikes, it has slowed me down. And I'm in the slow season right now!

All the same -- there are lots of wonderful things you can learn to do that are valuable now, in and of themselves. If your plan comes together, and you're in a good position to execute it, you'll be that much farther along.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:24 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Our goal is to purchase a home with 40-100 acres, and either develop portions of it ourselves or maintain the current status. We are interested in fruit/vegetables, less interested in livestock, and would be more focused on being self-sustaining & sharing with friends/neighbors than on selling our harvests. I am currently a person who likes to garden - what experiences and knowledge should I seek out over the next 25-30 years if I want this plan to be successful?

The primary experience you need to seek out is to get to spend some time [i.e. months, not days] on a real farm doing the sort of thing you expect to be doing.

As others have mentioned, this will involve far more work than you ever imagine. Managing 40-100 acres effectively requires skill, experience and did I mention a LOT of hard work?

If you intend to grow fruit, establishing an orchard [see hard work above] is something you need to do years in advance - trees take time to establish, so you'll need factor that into your planning. Ditto if you need to plant trees for shelter.

I think you at least need a plan B, because you may find that this is something you're just not cut out for in your 60's.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:23 PM on February 20, 2014

Working holidays doing WWOOFing for sure.
Get an inside look at living on a farm, and what will be possible, and enjoyable, versus plain old work.

Both of my parents are, essentially, in manual labour.
This is, indeed, something you retire from. I am very worried about what my mother will do for work in her 50s, as repeated shoulder injuries, and RSI in her hands (originally from pruning shears), is really taking its toll on her employment opportunities. The only thing she wanted for me is to not follow in her footsteps.
Meanwhile grandmothers garden has more than halved in size each decade as it got too much for her, so she now has basically a large picnic blanket, which is still doing pretty good.

Less interested in livestock is the right idea. A friend of my mothers ended up with some cattle on her 'lifestyle' property, which was terrible even before she got divorced, and... oh man. Anyway, she didn't do anything, and some of them went semi-wild, and it was animal welfare issue as much as anything. One goat (which can be super stubborn, and leave water for them - so many people don't do this), and some chickens, totally manageable. I live 5 minutes out of a city, in a near hidden hilly side valley, and my neighbours have chickens and goats. Past that, most farming is better done in scale.
If you don't have animals though, all that land outside your garden will just be long grass and forest, which is cool, but often you can get the same effect without buying it. What will you be doing with the 40-100 acres?

Fruit and nut trees are excellent, but you want them planted a 5-10 years before you 'need' them. And again, count on getting someone else to harvest most of them by the end of your 60s. Either buy them established, or possibly in your 50s you can arrange to buy part of the land, get trees planted out, check in on them, while renting out a house, or getting a house moved onto the land closer to retirement (getting house movers is generally cheaper than building, or buying a more ideal house + land combo).

But, as far as retiring with a house and garden goes, it sounds nice. Just don't count on sustainability. It's a lot of work.

Finally, move there earlier. Will you have family/children? Get them to move there earlier.
Even for introverts, moving out to the country and then living there when elderly, can be, and become, relentlessly lonely. And dangerous when you have no one to turn to if things go wrong, whether that is storm, floods, medical or personal. Who will your community be?
I know a bunch of my friends parents, parents friends and older, who moved out to lifestyle blocks in the country, and seem either miserable, or are moving back after a few years.
The ones who have done it, moved earlier, and have hooked in with established communities.
I know a woman who has basically set up a pagan community, where everyone from an hour around drives for regular community events, season potlucks, and helps with maintenance of the property, which is working for her. She's still on public transport lines to the nearest city, an hour by train.

Even if you just visit yearly for a holiday, you can establish some tender roots in the community you intend to live in. How is it for the elderly?

I'm planning on moving where-ever my family or community are, at retirement or awhile after, and downsizing to something I can maintain a routine in for a few decades. For me, I'm thinking about the country in my 30s to 50s, but then preferably moving in with a couple of friends, close enough to a city to be able to stay involved, active, and be able to use public transport etc.
posted by Elysum at 8:03 PM on February 20, 2014

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