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Area seniors turn to farming for extra cash and physical activity

  • Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Joanne cleans up their farm stand that her husband Tom built as the morning crowds retreat. Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Joanne cleans up their farm stand that her husband Tom built as the morning crowds retreat. Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Joanne harvests some broccoli in one of their gardens. She said strawberries are the cash crop on the farm, but they also have a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Joanne harvests some broccoli in one of their gardens. She said strawberries are the cash crop on the farm, but they also have a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Joanne cleans up their farm stand that her husband Tom built as the morning crowds retreat. Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Joanne harvests some broccoli in one of their gardens. She said strawberries are the cash crop on the farm, but they also have a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Joanne and Tom Locke have been married nearly 47 years and live in their Center Barnstead home across the street from where their wedding ceremony took place. The two had long carries in software and construction, and retired to work on their three-acre farm behind their home. Veggies Galore and More is a farm stand they've opened and operate next to their home and were working on crops on Wednesday afternoon June 26, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Joanne and Tom Locke might not fit the standard image of “new farmers.” Tom is 73, Joanne is 65, and both have retired from alternate careers, Tom in construction and Joanne in financial services. Yet in the last seven years, the Barnstead couple has built a bustling, albeit relatively tiny pick-your-own strawberry operation on the 3-acre property they have called home for more than 46 years. Weekend traffic is strong, according to Joanne, bolstered this time of year by the steady stream of vacationers who travel up Route 28 toward the Lakes Region.

The couple said the money they make from the berries, vegetables and various food and crafts they sell at the small enclosed farm stand next to their home helps offset real estate taxes. Though their venture is modest, it highlights a creative approach that some New Hampshire residents are using to stay physically active and financially afloat as they enter retirement.

Officials at the Department of Agriculture said the agency doesn’t track the number of retirees who farm commercially. But trends in the state’s agricultural and consumer communities have made it easier in recent years for older adults who own land, receive retirement benefits and are searching for a financial cushion to enter the field. Business at farmers markets across the state has increased considerably over the past decade as consumers push to incorporate more local foods and products into their diets. That has opened a door for small-scale farmers.

According to data from the 2007 agricultural census (the latest census, from 2012, is due out later this year), there are nearly a thousand more farms in operation in New Hampshire than in 2002. Like the Lockes’, many of those are small operations. In 2007 there were roughly 300 more farms under 49 acres than in 2002; the state’s average farm size shrunk from 132 to 113 acres in the same period.

“It’s a really interesting dynamic we’re in,” Agriculture Commissioner Loraine Merrill said. “There are lots of new smaller farms, and they’re very diverse.”

More than half of New Hampshire farmers rely on other sources of income, said Gail McWilliam Jellie, who directs the Agriculture Department’s Division of Agricultural Development. And for some land-owning retirees with a pension or 401(k) or other retirement savings, that presents a unique opportunity.

“The advent of farmers markets and the increased interest in local foods, I think that’s created more opportunities for supplemental retirement income,” Merrill said. “And if it’s something that they enjoy doing, how perfect is that?”

As the country continues to recover from the recession, people in New Hampshire and elsewhere are working longer than they were a decade ago. Last year, 22 percent of residents aged 65 and up were still working, up from about 14 percent in 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average age of the state’s farmers has also risen, according to the census data, from 53.6 in 1997 to 56.2 in 2007 (the national average is 55).

Kate Kerman, head of Small and Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire, said she has noticed a greater rate of retirees entering farming than a decade ago, though it’s not been a huge increase. Many are former gardeners who decide to jump into the marketplace, selling at farmers markets, cooperatives, community supported agriculture ventures or roadside stands.

“I think part of it is people have been innovating on how to make money on a small amount of acreage,” she said. “There is a lot of creative thought out there right now, so you can get a lot out of a little.”

The Lockes said they rely on Social Security and pensions to finance the bulk of their retirement. But the farm, which they said originated out of a surplus of garden produce, has provided a financially inviting and socially rewarding side project.

“There are people that think farming is sort of glorified,” said Joanne, who goes by “Fahma Jo.” “But we enjoy it, it’s fun. We meet people we haven’t seen in years, we meet new people. You work for 20 or 30 years and you’re tied up in an office doing something for a company, and you just kind of lose track of what’s happening in town.”

Working around the clock

At the couple’s farm, called Veggies Galore, customers can purchase berries, vegetables, local syrup, pickles and handmade quilts, as well as crafted trinkets. The couple also sells granola and baked goods made by three young girls who live down the street and who work part time picking berries.

The venture is labor intensive; the couple’s farm stand is open every day of the week, and because they eschew pesticides, there is frequent weeding to be done. Tom, who grew up on a berry farm and does most of the physical work, said it’s not for the faint of heart.

“I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody unless they grew up on a farm,” he said last week on a particularly muggy day. “How many people do you think would come out here and work in this kind of heat?”

But because the farm stand is open only four or five months each year, the couple has time to travel and spend additional time with their children and grandchildren, who live nearby.

Operating the farm together has also allowed them to concentrate on their individual strengths: Tom, who retired 11 years ago, oversees crop management while Joanne, who retired in 2009, runs the farm stand and handles advertising. Each week she sends out a “crop alert” email to customers and has developed a cookbook that includes recipes from local residents.

Having a tangible market space has provided incentive to practice and develop their hobbies, according to Joanne. She said last year she sold seven quilts, and has since received custom orders for others.

“It’s motivational,” she said. “Otherwise you’re sticking it on the internet and, eh, what do you know?”

There have been hurdles, she added, including keeping up with weekend business and dealing with customers who prove more difficult to interact with than others.

“Pick-your-own is interesting,” Joanne said. “I kind of fought it for a while. It’s educating people about, ‘Please don’t step on the plants, stay on the straw, don’t stomp on the berries. Respect us, respect the plants.’ ”

‘We sleep well’

Joyce and Jack Dunlap moved from Manchester to North Stratford last year after retiring from careers in insurance to farm land that Joyce had inherited from her father. Joyce, 60, had grown up on the property when it was a 300-acre dairy farm. When the dairy operation shuttered years ago, her father sold off much of the land and, with help from Joyce and Jack, cultivated winter squash on part of the remaining 16 acres.

The couple has opted for a different marketing path than the Lockes, becoming a member of the newly formed North Country Farmers’ Cooperative, which is comprised of some two dozen growers in the region and sells to resorts, restaurants, schools and other commercial outlets.

Jack, 70, said they hope to generate about $5,000 from the farm this year, enough to cover property taxes and help fund health care costs. He noted that the demanding physical schedule was already helping to offset the latter.

“I think that people are living longer, and I think they’re beginning to understand that a sedentary lifestyle is not going to get you much other than getting sick,” he said. “We have friends who think we’ve lost our mind for going back to farming, but you know, there’s a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. We sleep well.”

The couple currently farms one acre of the property and leases 6 acres to a neighbor. They’re also renovating the farm house, and are considering expanding the amount of land they have under cultivation.

When they were still in Manchester, they used to drive up on weekends and help Joyce’s father manage the fields.

Jack, who grew up on a poultry farm, said the money they earn is important but overshadowed by other draws, including access to fresh food and constant activity. Their grandchildren come up to visit, and Joyce’s uncle lives just down the road.

Jack said the couple plans to continue farming for some time, much as Joyce’s father had.

“Even when he had the oxygen tank he was out in the fields,” he said. “His thinking was always, ‘As long as I can still move, this is what I want to do.’ ”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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