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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Deserting Wall Street for the Farm

This article was featured in the New York Times


TORREY READE had an M.B.A. from Harvard, a six-figure job with an investment firm, a TriBeCa apartment, a closetful of expensive clothes — and a gnawing feeling that there was something better out there. She found it in a remote, rural corner of southern New Jersey, and tossed her former life away to become a farmer.

Home is now Neptune Farm in Salem County, a 126-acre spread where she raises beef cattle and lambs and grows oats. She has discovered that the work is hard and the compensation is low, but the fresh air and open space are her elixir.

“The longer I lived in the city, the more I longed for something green,” said Ms. Reade, 56. “I was going insane cramped up in an apartment building. Then there was my job. Investment banking can be very stressful, and you always have to perform for the investors. Every Christmas seemed to be destroyed because you’re always closing deals near the end of the year. There was so much stress. I feared that I was becoming not a very nice person.”

Ms. Reade is not alone in trying to live her own version of “Green Acres,” the television sitcom from the 1960s and ’70s about a priggish lawyer named Oliver Wendell Douglas who leaves behind big-city life to try his hand at farming.

According to the New Jersey Farm Bureau, there are 9,924 farms in the state. Pegi Adam, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said about 25 of those farms are run by people who came to farming after leaving other careers, and their numbers are growing.

“There are a lot of people out there who want to get off the corporate treadmill,” Ms. Adam said.

While those figures do not indicate a reversal these last few decades in the overall decline in the number of farms throughout the country, they are a sign of a small movement of people choosing the simpler life that farming offers.


“Young people are especially interested in organic farming, which is a growth industry in New Jersey,” Ms. Adam said.

Looking merely for a second home where she could escape to on the weekends, in 1989 Ms. Reade bought Neptune Farm, which included an 18th-century farmhouse. She so liked the peace and quiet that she soon persuaded her firm, which specialized in buying and selling bankrupt companies, to let her work from the farm several days a month.

That began a process of spending less and less time in New York and devoting fewer hours to her job.

The transition from corporate executive to full-time farmer was gradual, and even Ms. Reade cannot pinpoint exactly when she became more one than the other.

As she started out, Ms. Reade, who had worked in public television before attending Harvard Business School, had to find a way to supplement her declining income, so she knew she had to make better use of her land. The property’s previous owner did not use the land for farming and had allowed most of the fields to deteriorate.

Ms. Reade officially became an organic farmer in 1992, when Neptune Farm was certified by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. Even so, she estimated that it took another five years for her to make a complete transition, when she no longer had to rely on doing financial work on the side.

“There was a steep learning curve,” she said. “I had to pour all my savings into this place to make it work, and there was little or no return on the investment.”

But Ms. Reade, along with her companion, Dick McDermott, made it work, bringing the farm back to life. Besides the cattle and lambs she raised, she grew and sold fruit and vegetables, all of which were organically produced.

Jonathan White’s path to farming started out as a hobby. An engineer whose jobs included a teaching stint at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, he liked to make his own cheese. He became so enamored with the pastime that he left engineering in 1993 to run his own business making and selling cheese. Unable to purchase milk from grass-fed cows with which to make his cheese, he solved the problem by starting his own farm, Bobolink Dairy in Vernon.

“Cheese making and farming presented me with a whole fresh set of challenges,” said Mr. White, who started the farm with his wife, Nina, in 2002. “I could see that this was an area that was ripe for improvement. It’s been a very long time since anyone had questioned the very tenets of dairy farming.

“I’m no longer an engineer, but I didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The engineering training and experience helps me be a healthy skeptic. The farming world is filled with conclusions for which nobody remembers what the assumptions were. I love to come in and ask questions that nobody ever asked before, especially if there is a better way to do something.”

Todd Applebaum used to work in the construction industry and live in Paramus. But he was not content with the quality of his life. He had had horses growing up and figured he would enjoy working with livestock. He wanted to go into a branch of farming that would not require owning a lot of land or raising a lot of capital, and discovered that raising ostriches met his needs.

With his brother, Lance, he opened Fossil Farms in 1997 in Andover, where they raise ostriches organically, selling their meat primarily to restaurants that offer exotic fare.

“I definitely enjoy it,” said Todd Applebaum, who now lives in Fredon. “It’s always interesting, always a challenge. I didn’t like the rat race. I like the quiet.”

About the same time that the Applebaums opened their farm, Ms. Reade made her complete conversion to full-time farmer, leaving the world of finance behind. That meant giving up a lot, mainly a decent income, she said. Her current income, she said, is “just above the poverty level.”

Ms. Reade’s former colleagues are not completely surprised at her career change.

“She went to work for an investment company and said she had some real qualms about all that goes on in that world and that she didn’t want any part of it,” said Karen Johnson, who worked with Ms. Reade at the PBS station WGBH in Boston. “She has a strong moral backbone. She just didn’t like what she was doing, so it didn’t surprise me that she would walk away from all that money to do something she considered better.”

For Ms. Reade, running a small farm has never been easy. In her early days as a farmer, she found a niche growing organic fruits and vegetables, which were not prevalent in the area at the time. But then several larger South Jersey farms eventually went organic and Ms. Reade found that she could soon not compete with them. She still grows fruits and vegetables, but for her own consumption.

She knows her farming profits will never remotely approach her previous income. And, she said, she does not care.

“It was surprisingly easy to give up what I had,” Ms. Reade said. “I don’t have kids and I don’t need a lot of money. Some people can’t retire until they have $10 million in the bank. I didn’t need a huge wine cellar or a Renoir on the wall. That was never me.

“I am compensated here in other ways, in ways I never imagined. I’ve always been a pretty happy person. But I’ve never been happier.”