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Old 11-27-2009, 03:07 PM
256 posts, read 175,024 times
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My husband and I are looking at early retirement in a couple years (he's 4 years older than me and will be retiring at 60) and moving from California to my "dream farm". We're considering several states, and right now Vermont seems to be highest on the list. So that's what this query is about.

First, the dream farm idea: we will probably have enough money from selling our house here to buy a good-sized farm, around 50-100 acres. We won't need to make a living from farming, thank God, but whatever we raise will have to at minimum pay for itself and hopefully produce a modest profit. Most likely it will be some combination of pastured handspinning wool sheep and meat goats. I am a livestock gal, but cattle are too big and expensive, and dairying is too laborious. Emphasis will be on low labor and capital input, so, fewer machines, buildings and grain, more rotational grazing, grass-finished (if possible), and living/lambing out. This is, after all, retirement.

We are not exactly city slickers, having cleared our land, built a house (just the two of us plus a couple friends), and gardened and raised meat and dairy goats at a hobby level. We are used to doing things like fixing the well pump, getting up our own firewood, and mending fences. But we aren't really farmers. We neither intend to "live off the land" in romantical fashion nor enter into commodity farming. Both are, frankly, beyond our energy level.

Being a northern California native (for all you non-west coasters, that makes a big difference -- I've been to LA twice in my whole life), I have big questions about, well, snow. But we are both drawn to New England, for the particular cultural style, the sense of history, the tradition of small scale mixed farming (absent in CA and in most of the West), and of course, its beauty.

Our daughter who is in college in PA, seems very inclined to stay back East permanently, which figures large in our decisionmaking process too.

Our other top contender in location (at the moment anyway) is the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Arable land prices are rather comparable to Vermont there. The growing season is far longer, and it has the advantage of far more familiarity in climate and culture, my extended family are a day's drive away, I have friends there -- but we are kind of thinking we are more adventurous than that. All the other baby boomers in California seem to be planning to retire to a hobby farm in the Willamette Valley, for one thing-- a scary thought. On the other hand, property taxes in Vermont appear to be something like quadruple Oregon's. Not an insignificant fact.

So, the question would be, for those with experience, what are the chances of us being happy in Vermont, with the fantasies we are currently running? Think it's stupid for people with gray hair to move to such a cold climate? What kind of problems do you think we'll encounter if we go for it? What considerations are the most important (besides soil quality, which is of course paramount)?

Inquiring minds want to know . . .
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Old 11-27-2009, 04:52 PM
Location: The Woods
17,091 posts, read 22,609,680 times
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Farmers have been fleeing VT since the 1800's...rocky soil, long, cold winters, hills and mountains, transportation to market has never been easy or affordable...most farms right now are either losing money and just barely clinging on or, any making a profit aren't making much and tend to be smaller, more diverse farms.

That said, you can grow a lot in VT, you just have to deal with rocky soil, a relative lack of flat land, and many warm weather things have to be started indoors early.

Taxes are high and land is expensive. If you have a big starting budget and plenty of retirement income afterwards to cover expenses and taxes it might be doable.

Less equipment means more labor, generally. I'm a fan of doing things by hand but 2 people and 50 to 100 acres without any equipment will not be easy. Farming 50 acres by hand will be a real chore, there's a reason those old farmhouses in New England from before modern farm machinery have so many bedrooms...
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Old 11-27-2009, 06:30 PM
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I think you are setting yourself up for the most incredibly poor scenario outcome and disappointment if you intend to set up a small scale "hobby farm" with a requirement that it make money.

As a small farmer/rancher here in the West, with irrigated hay forage crops, meat goats, fiber goats, meat sheep breeds, horses, llamas, poultry, livestock guardian dogs, greenhouses for vegetable and herb production ... I can tell you that any one of these ventures is a huge sinkhole for cash unless you approach it as a business. Even then, it is unlikely to be a money maker for you on a small scale once you figure in feed/supplement costs, vet bills, well care, meat processing, marketing and sales expenses, and all the other incidental costs that rack up year in/year out for any aspect of the place.

If you've not been experienced in cold and snowy climates, I think you'll be making the obstacles for success even greater. There's an art to keeping livestock healthy and productive through a winter, and it's a lot of work EVERY DAY, without fail, for a small scale diversified operation.

IMO, you'd be better off with fertile Oregon land in a longer growing season milder climate zone than taking on the rigors of VT.

I think you'll find that the bloom will be off the rose in very short order with your vision of some idyllic farm nestled in a bee-loud glade with all the critters singing to you from their pastures. Keeping busy in retirement is one thing, but taking on a multi-faceted physically and financially demanding business is another. I think your "fantasy" is just that ... a fantasy, with an unachieveable goal of deriving income from a hobby scale operation that would even begin to break even, let alone make money. Try asking any of the farmers in the area you're looking at what type of investment and scale of operation it takes to begin to make any money from the very minimal profit returns given on any of the ventures you're looking at ... and don't be mislead by seeing somebody's top dollar show animal price at the show barn. Even at thousands of dollars for a top breeding buck or ram, those folks generally lost money on it ... and that was the top dollar critter, not the price paid for most of the animals at the show. Don't forget travel costs, accomodations, the truck and trailer you need to haul your livestock (what, they don't fit in the trunk of the car?), per diems on the road, and so forth all go in to calculating whether or not you made any money. And you won't get that top dollar show animal sale without going to a lot of shows and showing a lot, too.

I'd advise you to go to some of the national level shows for the various meat and fiber breeds you are thinking about raising. Talk to the families who are showing and find out how much time and committment, as well as dollars and facility it takes to get to this level. Then ask yourself if you're seriously willing to spend that much time, effort, money, and labor. It's an all-encompassing lifestyle, and you're either ready to commit to it ... or you aren't.

We've got several friends out West here who did the full-tilt boogie llama and alpaca and angoras and specialty sheep fiber breeds ... shearing/prepping/cleaning/spinning/dyeing ... on their own little 100 acre place. They soon found out that it was more cost effective as a business at the Farmer's Markets and Fiber Arts shows to import stuff from south america and sell that then it was to try to produce their own stuff. We even gave them their first four alpaca's for free, just to haul them away from our place .... And my wife is a handspinner/handweaver, too, with many "best of show" ribbons for her products; she still can't sell her wares for enough money to make money off of our angora goats which are top ranked for fiber quality and productivity. Don't even get me started on what it takes to keep Boer goats when it comes to fencing and corrals, they're almost impossible to keep contained without spending a lot of money.

Last edited by sunsprit; 11-27-2009 at 07:27 PM..
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Old 11-27-2009, 06:47 PM
Location: Everywhere and Nowhere
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So what else in on your "list"? Vineyard in Tuscany? Montana horse ranch?
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Old 11-27-2009, 07:58 PM
Location: Inman
119 posts, read 528,616 times
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I lived in Vermont for 30 years and just want to throw a couple of thoughts in. First, you are in for a huge shock with the weather. Vermont is the cloudiest state in the nation. When we have one sunny day we pay for it with 3 cloudy ones. Even when it is not winter you are going to see a lot of gray sky. Taxes are very high in VT as already has been commented on. With that said, Vermont is one of the most beautiful states in the nation.

On the plus side I know of a great group of farmers that have found a niche making cheese - especially goat cheese. There seems to be a huge market for artisan cheeses w/a Vermont label.

Go visit Vermont in all five seasons (yup - five - winter, spring, mud season, summer and fall)spend a week during each season and then go with your gut. You will know what is right!

Also, visit the Vermont thread. You will learn a lot from them.
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Old 11-27-2009, 08:14 PM
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After reading of what you envision, it's kinda neat to dream, however the reality of the climate, economy, taxes etc. in New England are a real eye opener.

The growing season is very short in Vermont, the taxes are very high, however most of the residents are very decent people. The scenery can be awesome, however coming from No. Ca I am confident that you have seen a lot of beautiful country.

Much of what the previous posters have written is well said (and very true)....If your goal and objective is to live in Vermont,simply because it's Vermont, then you will be fine. If your underlying purpose is to make a go of the "farming" aspect......think twice...either way.....good luck
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Old 11-27-2009, 09:24 PM
256 posts, read 175,024 times
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I don't think I was talking profit, just breaking even on what I enjoy, raising livestock. Which means, obviously, being hardheaded, penciling it out, and making the unsentimental choices. Is it really impossible to have livestock that actually pay for the cost of raising them?

There seemed to me at this distance anyway that in Vermont there is a moderate support network of this kind of small sheep farmer, small scale abattoirs, wool festivals, etc. that it would be a bit easier to get started in New England than in some other places without these things as developed or available.

I'm perfectly aware of how uneconomic farming has become in New England. It isn't that great anywhere that I know of. I've lived and worked on farms in various parts of North America. My grandparents were dairy farmers.

I really wasn't considering doing anything with the land but grazing it. The reason I would like a fair sized piece of land is to have enough grass and browse, not to get wildly overextended. And by the way, I know what it takes to keep goats in, I've done it for years. It is not as much more expensive as it is more exacting than for sheep.

I also have no intention of doing the show or breeding stock route, as that is way more expense and energy. I know the drill there, I am a 4-H brat who hung out at many a sheep and goat (and horse) show, and I still do; I have friends who do that (as a HOBBY, which is all it really can be, usually).

I appreciate that I would have to learn a lot more about animal husbandry in cold climates. That alone wouldn't faze me.

I would never consider such a venture if we didn't have enough money to buy a good farm with relatively flat land, and an assured income stream without any profit from the farm at all. Some of the responders seem to think I believe we could live off the proceeds of the farm. I don't imagine that happening in the slightest way.

I also am not yet totally convinced that income and energy wise, it would be enormously different in Oregon. So, sure, we wouldn't have to shovel snow. And it could be possible, with enough land, to graze year round (no doubt it would entail massive seasonal culling). But I don't know enough to say. I do know you need a hell of a lot of land to graze year round in California, which, without irrigation, has about the same growing season as Vermont, only in reverse -- six months of drought instead of cold. Oregon climate is not that much different than northern CA, just shorter drought, grayer winter.

I have some friends in Saskatchewan who run sheep on six sections of hilly, rather poor land, with about 1 person working 3/4 time or less most of the time. Their sheep live out all winter, lamb in the field without help. SK has a considerably harder winter than New England, I believe. No buildings but the shearing shed. They have one tractor but don't use it for much. Do they make a lot of money? No, but they're not losing any, and they aren't killing themselves with work either. They are very hard-headed people born and bred to the land. They think outside the box and aren't afraid to try new techniques, but they are not pipe-dreamers either.

I have a friend in Wisconsin who raises dairy goats and sells the milk to an established artisan cheese maker, who will take all she can produce. She is also "retired". She's doing fine.

Of course we wouldn't ever consider buying land in Vermont or anywhere else without renting for a solid year to make sure we wanted to be there. Excellent advice there.

As far as cloudy, have you ever spent a winter in the Pacific Northwest? I have. When the sun came out I got lost, things looked so unfamiliar. It didn't bother me, though.

I appreciate the comments . . .
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Old 11-28-2009, 12:17 AM
511 posts, read 2,009,344 times
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I'd say go for Oregon. Sounds like you have more of a support network of family and friends out there. I think cost would be quite a bit higher in VT. Heating & such... Keep in mind that there may be animal rights laws saying you have to provide shelter, or even heated shelter, for the sheep in the winter. I have no idea if they do, but it would be something to look into because some states have very tough laws. Just a thought to check. I'd say certainly go down there and check it out in the dead of winter, see how it suits you... you could love it or hate it. I love the cold but sometimes it irritates my arthritis & athsma. I wouldn't move away from snow country though There's nothing more beautiful than waking up to fresh snow covering the world!
In the end, after looking at your options & visiting different areas, you will know what feels right. Go with your gut. We only live once, so I would never tell someone to forget their dream without giving it a try! Best of luck & I hope it all works out for you!
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Old 11-28-2009, 05:35 AM
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Initially, I thought that I'd give you a break-down on our operating expenses/costs of meat lamb production here in Wyoming where I'm able to raise my own hay for my winter feeding needs in a snowy cold climate ....

but then, on re-reading your background and experience in the ranching biz and your resource of knowing people with a 6 section virtually care-free sheep operation in a tough climate area who can leave their sheep out year around and they lamb all by themselves ....

I realized that you're already an expert in the economics and labor of raising sheep and lambs.

I have absolutely no doubt that your sheep will lamb with 100% survival rates without your assistance and all you'll have to do is back up the trailer to the pasture at your leisure when the time comes and the selected lambs will load themselves for the trip to the processor down the road a few miles from your place. The lambs will, no doubt, even do all the marketing and sales and delivery of finished products for you, too. No need to worry about predation losses, either ... you'll breed "tough" sheep, won't you? And you'll select a breed that has 100% survival rates on lambing, too? even out in the field, unattended? and will always find unfrozen water to drink in your 100 acre pastures in the dead of winter, right? or adequate feed during the winter months grazing on your lands? and your rams will know which ewes to breed each season without your corraling them off, too?

Such comforting delusions will go far in helping your business to carry it's costs, won't they? As Sheridan says ... go with your gut, you'll only live once, and it sounds like you've got all the resources needed at your disposal to show us all how easy it is to "break even" in the meat and fiber sheep biz.

Last edited by sunsprit; 11-28-2009 at 05:50 AM..
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Old 11-28-2009, 08:26 AM
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Great post ,sunspirit !

I have been rotational grazing on my farm since 1993 and live along a state hwy.
In summer, those cows peacefully grazing always attract people who stop to ask questions as they would like to start the same operation.

I am happy to take the time to encourage and help them.

What always amazes me is those people forget summer doesn't last year around in Minnesota ( nor in Vermont or Saskatchewan)

They listen intently as I tell them I can obtain good milk production on those grazing strips without feeding other forages. Their enthusiasm is overflowing.

Then I talk about the hay inventory that is needed for the other 7 months of the year and their faces drop.( guess they forgot winter comes every year )

If the OP takes those fairy tales about that sheep guy in Canada as truth, a rude awakening is about to happen.
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