AgriCulture: What, Me Retire?

All this week I’ve been appreciating my farm chores as welcome breaks from the stresses of my day job. As a lawyer, I often represent people with serious illness whose insurers are denying them access to treatments. This week I was juggling three cases (an older woman with breast cancer, a young woman with an immune deficiency, and a middle-aged man for whom standard hormone replacement medications would not work) in which delays in getting the treatments prescribed by their doctors would mean prolonged symptoms, risk of disability or death, or all of the above. Such clients quite naturally react to their predicaments with emotions that range from anxiety to desperation to rage. When things don’t appear to be moving fast enough or in their favor, some react by doubting my competence or lashing out at me.

After forty plus years of such work, you’d think I would have developed coping mechanisms to both manage their expectations and prevent their anxieties from becoming mine. Those mechanisms don’t always succeed, and sometimes I feel my patience is diminishing, my skin getting thinner.

That’s one reason I like chores. When the chickens see me coming they run in my direction, knowing that I will soon be spreading cracked corn on the ground for them to peck at. When Possum the sow hears me open the gate, she gets out of her hut and is generally waiting for me at the front of her pen to receive her breakfast or dinner. When I enter the barn and start clapping my hands, the sheep for the most part quite compliantly head for the south vestibule, where I confine them so I can fill their water trough and arrange their feed unimpeded. They associate this ritual with the coming reward of fresh hay and grain treat.

It’s refreshing to escape a legal clientele who are often naïve to the process, whose reactions are informed principally by their fears and prejudices, and to spend time with a generally compliant swarm of critters whose behavior is shaped by their comfort in routine and their expectation of happy rewards. Weeks like this, I sometimes fantasize retiring to a life free of client-related angst and devoted instead to managing this happy little farm domain, with a low stress administrative job to supplement my meager retirement savings.

Then come mornings like today. I woke up to the sound of wind rattling the bedroom windows. I had to force myself to get out of bed to feed my menagerie. Sure, I was relieved that the blizzard battering eastern Long Island and New England passed us by, leaving just a few fringe inches of snow. It was no challenge at all to get to the chicken coop and pig pen. But still the walk up to the barn meant facing a biting north wind sweeping off the pastures, the snowflakes feeling like little burning ice pellets as they hit my face. Arriving at the barn, I found that the plug of the heating element that keeps the sheep’s water trough from freezing had jiggled loose. Their water had turned to a block of ice. What a pain!

On such mornings, I sometimes contemplate retiring from active farming altogether, allowing me to enjoy the beauty of winter from the comfort of inside. Why keep losing money farming when I could set myself up for a much more comfortable old age by ratcheting up my legal income now?

Maybe all these thoughts of retirement were prompted by the announcement this week of Justice Steven Breyer’s intended retirement from the Supreme Court. He made the difficult decision to give up a guaranteed lifetime job, full of prestige and fulfillment. He apparently did not feel unable to do the job well. Rather, it seems he wanted to permit confirmation of a young left leaning replacement who would be there to resist the rightward drift of the Court for decades to come.

I debated the move with my friend Éric, who was back for another farm sojourn this week. Éric’s age cohort had a harder time entering the labor force than we baby boomers did, and his country, Canada, has a better social safety net for the elderly. He is a fan of retirement, both in general and Breyer’s particularly. He argues that older people have a social responsibility to retire to make room for the young. New blood reinvigorates and reshapes the world.

I have far more mixed emotions. I like the political consequences of Breyer stepping down, but otherwise I tend to channel the views of an old friend, Ruth, who has studied and advocated for the interests of the aging. She ran a program to award “Age Smart” employers who, rather than forcing older workers into retirement, find ways to keep them or bring them back. The older workers gain in self-worth and financial security. The employers gain the well-honed skills, historical perspective, and greater dependability of seniors. With departures like Breyer’s, the Court loses skills I wish it didn’t have to lose.

Éric admits to modifying his views of retirement in light of the experience of our mutual friend, Paul, a beloved and dedicated teacher. Paul says he has failed at retiring for over 10 years. Retiring from one school at age 65, he was lured back to another for the next 10 years. Now that he has retired again he is getting calls to fill in, help out, or even take new jobs. It’s hard, he says, to not be something you’ve been for over 50 years.

I fully identify with Paul. Despite the occasionally frustrating client or case, I derive tremendous satisfaction when I succeed at my legal work. And while I need the money, I’m not depriving younger lawyers of opportunity by continuing to work myself. There is plenty of unmet demand for help fighting insurance companies.

Nor could I readily give up the farming. How could I if it is so part of my identity that Éric refers to me as “Mark le fermier”? As my friend Tom recently put it: “You are the farm and the farm is you.” Pretty as the view from the window is, just appreciating the farm from behind glass would not be the same.


EGGS: $5/doz Limited supplies, which will increase as the hours of daylight do

LAMB COMING: Finally a date at the slaughterhouse. They go to market March 8. If you’ve expressed an interest in lamb, it will be ready frozen the second to third week in March, and I’ll be sending you a cut sheet. For you others, there will be cuts of lamb available then.


Email us your order at, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.


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