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Tilling Past Retirement: Farming After Age 70

Watering hundreds of apple and peach trees, weeding gardens chock full of eggplant and okra, and mowing 11 acres of land is tall order for any farmer.

Just imagine doing all that at age 74.

As the average age of the American farmer is clicking steadily upward; one Tarrant County couple is farming long past retirement age.

When Sue Short uncovers her honeybee hive behind glass, it’s a real field trip show-stopper.

But her pollination lecture is just tip of the corn cob for kids who tour Henrietta Creek Orchard in Tarrant County. It's home to 700 dwarf apple trees and children get an up close look at how the irrigation system works, the conveyer belt and automatic apple washer, and everything else on this working farm, including a pen full of playful chickens.

71 year-old Sue Short runs the field trip program pretty much on her own. It involves a lot of walking, kid-wrangling and time outside.

“I get hot and I get tired but it’s real fulfilling too. When you’ve got kids that come out like that and they have a good time, they’ll have memories,” Sue says. “We have kids who come back who are going to college and remember coming here to the apple orchard.”

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA News
Madden shows off her Gala apple and freshly picked carrots.

This field trip is certainly a memorable one for Madden Shoebotham, a student from First Baptist Church of Denton. She may only by 9 years old, but has a remarkably clear picture of both the perks and pitfalls of life on a farm.

“Cool, because you would get to grow stuff and you’d know you were feeding people, but it would also be a little nerve-wracking because you’d have to be like, are there going to be grasshoppers today? Or, I wonder what is going to happen? Is there going to be rain, is there going to be snow, is there going to be a freeze, is it just going to be a scorching day?” Madden wonders.

Every one of Madden’s questions is valid, and Sue and her 74 year-old husband Ray have asked them all a hundred times before. Sue and Ray tend to their 11 plus acres by themselves. They have no paid staff and nobody to take over. So while they’re ready to retire, they just can’t.

"I need the money, social security can’t pay all the bills,” Ray says.

Ray had open heart surgery two years ago and battles diabetes. He recently fell off the roof and broke several ribs, but it’s up to him to hand water 200 trees every day.

And he’s not alone. In the late 1970s, the average age of a farmer was 50. Today, it’s 57 plus.

“And that has become a really major concern, is how we get new people into this business and how do we find exit strategies for those who are really willing to retire?” asks Steve Amosson, a professor with Texas A&M.

Amosson says the fastest growing farm demographic is people 65 and up, people like Sue and Ray Short.

“I used to love it when I first started,” says Ray. “When I was about 25, 30 years younger.”

But Sue says when it comes to caring for this much land, they may have overstayed their welcome.

“I love growing stuff, always have, but your body kind of limits you to what you can do. I have big ideas and things I’ve wanted to do for years, but I’m not able to do all of it,” says Sue.

And now that they’re both into their seventies, they need to make some changes. They’ve been trying to sell a parcel of land for years now. They had a deal lined up before the recession, but now, not even a nibble.

“We had a contract on that six acres for $320,000. Today, if somebody offered me $200,000, I’d take it. And you can print that,” says Ray.

Until they can count on some more money coming in, Sue and Ray have to carry on. But for Sue, even though the work is back breaking she says she’s not quite ready to give up those golden hours she spends with field trip kids.

“You know, I would miss that. I think I would be saying, I don’t know what my identity would be,” says Sue. “Who am I? Because right now, I’m an apple grower, I’m a farmer, I’m a teacher, so I don’t know.”

So for now, Henrietta Creek Orchard will remain in the aging hands of Sue and Ray Short. And they’ll continue to loan it out, a few hours at a time, to kids excited to pick apples and taste test black eyed peas.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.