Bill Wilson was 35 when it hit him: He wasn't happy working as a financial planner, and never would be. So he bought the farm. It was a vineyard, actually. Eighty-six acres in Temecula, Calif. Wilson persuaded his family -- parents, brother, sister, and spouses -- to buy it together. By 1999, they had moved into mobile homes on the property. Their savings went to build a winery and restore the vineyard. Now, Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards' zinfandel, muscat, and cabernet are all award winners.
Call it the lure of the land. Just as the family farm seems destined to become a romantic icon of another era, entrepreneurs are spying opportunity in agriculture. Membership in the American Cheese Society has doubled, to 250 artisanal cheesemakers, since 2001. Small wineries now sell more than 66% of California wines priced over $15 a bottle, and shipments quadrupled in 2003, according to MFK Research, a wine consultancy in St. Helena, Calif. In 1989, just 12 farms offered internships; now, says the nonprofit National Center for Appropriate Technology, nearly 450 do.
None of these entrepreneurs compete with giant agribusinesses or grow crops for them. Instead, they're thriving with upscale specialty products--growing, processing, packaging, and advertising their own goods. Smart move: While prices of agricultural products have been flat, in real dollars, since the 1950s, those of packaged goods have doubled. Selling finished products lets entrepreneurs reap higher margins from limited acreage. More important, it lets them build a business by making something they're passionate about on land they love.
By Rachael King