The Not-So-Simple Call of Country Life
By Thane Peterson
One day in mid-September, I spent a few hours chatting with Judith Schad, the noted Indiana goat-cheese maker. She and her lawyer husband, Larry, have an 80-acre farm in the hills near Greenville, Ind., just north of Louisville, Ky. I rarely felt more relaxed with someone I just met as I did while sitting on the screened back porch of the Schads' 19th century log house, a plate of cheese and a glass of California shiraz in front of each of us.
Outside, goats were foraging on honeysuckle, sumac, and dogwood while Judith and Larry's two big, cream-colored Pyrenee dogs roamed the woods, keeping predators away. It's hard to imagine a more idyllic scene.
I suspect just about every harried professional has dreamed at one time or another of living like the Schads. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, you hear a lot more talk of people wanting to chuck the urban life and invest in a little business somewhere -- a bed and breakfast, say, or maybe a small farm, winery, or weekly newspaper.
HARD WORK, LITTLE MONEY.
The main reason many urbanites hold back is the nagging fear they'll end up like the couple played by Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert in the old TV series Green Acres -- goofy city people who don't fit in and lose their shirts trying to make a go of it in the country. But that risk is probably less great than the risk of working far harder and earning far less as you pursue a simple, more meaningful life.
Still, if that lifestyle beckons, you couldn't have a better role model than Judith, 60, a plainspoken former PhD candidate in Renaissance literature who has the beautiful, weathered face of a happy woman who spends a lot of time outdoors. She and her husband were living in suburban Louisville, where they grew up, when they bought a ramshackle farm in 1977.
After they acquired a few goats as a 4-H project for their three children, nature took its course -- and they soon had more than a dozen goats. Judith started making cheese from their milk in her kitchen. By 1988, she was selling it commercially.
Today, Schad is on the board of the prestigious American Cheese Society, has six employees, some 350 dairy goats, and does $350,000 a year in business. Her Capriole Farmstead cheeses are sold in the nation's best gourmet shops, and top chefs rave about the complex flavors of such fancifully named varieties as her creamy Wabash Cannonball and pungent, aged Old Kentucky Tomme, and Mt. St. Francis.
"Her cheeses are some of the best in the country," says Sarah Stegner, the chef at Chicago's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "I serve them all." Try some yourself. You can order Capriole cheese online.
Before you quit your day job, however, it might be a good idea to chat with someone like Schad to see if you fit the profile of a happy country dweller. She loves the gentle rhythms of farm life, but she grew up spending summers on her beloved grandparents' farm. Larry, who initially did the goat milking, long ago decided to focus most of his energy on his law practice. "He got tired of the money [struggle]," Judy says.
All three of the couple's children decided to leave the farm because they -- or their spouses -- prefer town living. "I think there's an agrarian personality," Judy says. "When you're a farmer, you think about nothing else. For me, everything is about the changing of the seasons -- when the dogwood blooms, when the persimmons are ripe, when the grapes are ready to make jelly."
Successful as Capriole is, though, it would be hard to keep going without the backstop of Larry's income as a lawyer, Judy admits. "I can always afford to not pay myself a salary for a month or two if things get bad."
One reason it's tough to make money is the surprisingly large investment needed to start a small rural business. Schad figures a milking shed and other cheese-making equipment cost around $225,000 these days -- and that's on top of the land, a house to live in, and goats. "You'd better like to work, too," Schad says. "For me, it's a pleasure to get up early and work like a dog."
The same is true for most of the rural businesses that city-dwellers dream about. You have to be quite wealthy nowdays to start up a California winery. Wine-industry consultant Vic Motto notes that prime agricultural land in Napa Valley now goes for $150,000 per acre. Ann Colgin, who originally launched her much-admired Colgin Cellars winery while keeping her day job as an art and antiques dealer, says she believes that "today it would be very difficult to do what I did."
Costs have soared too high, and hundreds of small wineries are now clamoring for recognition. You can always buy cheaper land in a less desirable growing area, but your wine will sell for far less than Napa Valley wine, too.
Buying a B&B is cheaper, but running one isn't as romantic as it might seem. Two years ago, Dianne Michels, owner of Serendipityhr, a human-resources consultancy in Evanston, Ill., changed her mind about buying a B&B after attending a seminar on the subject offered by an owner in Red Wing, Minn. "When I saw it from the owner's perspective, it was as if the guests were in the guest rooms and the owners were in the servant's quarters," she recalls.
"And there was all this housekeeping and other hidden work. I mean, I don't mind cooking breakfast once in a while, but this was seven days a week -- and it always has to be good. Plus, the guests aren't all Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. Some of them are real dopes."
Back in 1982, at the age of 42, Motto quit his job as an executive at Arthur Andersen in Miami and moved to Napa Valley. He didn't have a job and didn't know much about wine -- he just knew he wanted to live in wine country. It took three years to get his consulting business established, but now he has 32 employees. "I work a lot less than I did at Andersen -- maybe 50 hours a week -- and a lot of it consists of going out to lunch. I love every minute of it," he says.
Given Andersen's bankruptcy in the wake of the Enron scandal, he notes, taking the leap turned out to have been less risky than staying in his old job. "I might have ended up broke and dishonored if I'd stayed," he points out.
Even so, most city-dwellers would be advised to dip a toe in the waters of rural life before taking the full plunge. "There are a million ways you can get closer to the land without buying 80 acres," Schad says. "I started with a garden on a half-acre lot in the suburbs."
For her, the transition worked. But, she and others like her caution -- with good reason -- it's not as easy as it looks even if rhapsodic afternoons come more often than they do for the overly busy urban worker.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Beth Belton