Advisors help clients make their rural dreams a reality-and sometimes their own.
Fifteen years ago, in his late thirties, recently
divorced, and struggling to convert an investment customer base into a
financial planning clientele, Guy Cumbie dreamed of owning and living
in the country. The former president of the Financial Planning
Association specced it out on paper, literally and in detail.
Among other features, he wanted 50 to 100 acres, a white farmhouse, ponds, rolling topography, a creek and wildlife, including deer, doves, turkeys and quail. Moreover, it had to be within 50 miles of Fort Worth, Texas, where Cumbie has his office and practices financial planning, and have good perimeter fencing and cross-fencing.
He even named it after the "Lazy Mac" brand he designed for it. "'Mac" stood for the "Lazy Middle-Aged Crazy Ranch," says Cumbie.
Today, he's remarried, with a daughter who says, "Daddy, look at those cows," every morning, and Cumbie Farms exists pretty much as its owner originally envisioned it. Cumbie says he had an epiphany of sorts in the life-planning process with the Kinder Institute of Life Planning in the Rocky Mountains, which helped rekindle the spark of energy behind his "Lazy Mac" dream.
Two centuries ago the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth gently exhorted readers in his poems to appreciate and learn from the benefits of nature. "Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher," he wrote.
Today, growing numbers of baby boomers seeking a more bucolic lifestyle-not "retiring" in the traditional sense-are seeking a way to learn and be closer to nature. For some, it may mean a desire for a simpler life. Of course, for others it will be a means to supplement retirement income.
This has many faces: a small vineyard, an organic farm, a bed and breakfast, a nonprofit farm for the disadvantaged to visit or a rehab for injured animals. It also can be a flower farm, a lavender farm or perhaps a cheese dairy. In many cases, they are stepping off the corporate treadmill, fulfilling dreams for a simpler life that often were long deferred.
How do you advise clients who are retiring or preparing to retire and start anew in the country? How do you help clients with the "business side of things," not just the fun part they dream about? Not every financial advisor is an expert in such matters, of course. Still, many are helping guide clients to a safe harbor-and sometimes joining the movement back to nature themselves.
Advisor Holly Hunter, CFP, RLP, in Portsmouth, N.H., and her husband, for example, recently bought a 100-acre goat farm in Mexico. "We will be energy independent [solar and wind], and of course, able to grow our own food and fish, as we are 300 feet from the ocean," says Hunter, who like Cumbie drew her inspiration from training through the Kinder Institute. "The finances have been ultraconservative, as you cannot borrow money for a mortgage in Mexico," she adds.
While the serenity of the rural existence is certainly very real and palpable, it can come at a significant price and with added complexity. Cumbie, who is assisting a number of like-minded farm and ranching clients, readily acknowledges that his experience with farming is not necessarily a template for everybody else with similar dreams. "The bottom line-it's been exceedingly hard and complex, far beyond our earliest sense of it," remarks Cumbie, who allows that he has done everything from attending water rights seminars to learning how to properly complete the IRS Schedule F.
On his way to work in Fort Worth one recent morning, for example, he freed a deer caught in a fence near his gate. It was hanging upside down by one of its hind legs between two upper strands of barbed wire. "It would have died if I had left it there for even an hour," says Cumbie, who also built the 1,000-foot fence himself.
Still, Cumbie would not have it any other way. He says he's living his dream. Although his agricultural endeavors bring in some revenue, he has no intention of giving up his day job as a financial planner. He says he is increasingly able to help clients aspiring to a rural lifestyle. "I've been able to do value-added consulting with people looking for places in the country, in terms of specifying the size, location and features of properties, and in doing fundamental visioning work," says Cumbie, who is careful not to project his own preferences and values into their situation.
Beth Jones, a registered life planner with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., is assisting a 57-year-old client who is giving up life in suburbia as a consultant working with developmentally disabled children from birth to three years old. In place of this she plans another existence on a small farm, helping people get in touch with their feelings and emotions through horses.
"In our work creating a life plan, she discovered she no longer derived satisfaction in her work, due to regulatory issues and paperwork burdens. It became more about keeping extensive records for audits than working with children," Jones says.
"She just completed her training in equine-facilitated experiential learning. We're working on restructuring her life so she can end her consulting business and start an equine-facilitated experiential learning center with a small farm and a few horses. A casual acquaintance has already given her one horse." The client, according to Jones, has designated her business The Painted Horse Retreat.
Jones says she has more than 30 clients in various stages of this kind of life planning process. "They're all looking to simplify and live a more organic lifestyle doing work that makes a difference, that's at their heart's core. That's what is most important to them. It's what gets them out of bed in the morning. My job is to help people live a fulfilled life."
Andrew Valentine Pool, an advisor with offices in Houston and New Orleans, relates his experiences with a client who intends to raise alpacas. "She saw that life was more than what she was doing previously, studied the industry very carefully and took the plunge a few years ago," says Pool.
She and her father now have a small number of animals and are looking to purchase a farm, and Pool is helping them develop a business plan. He also hopes to create an investment vehicle to assist other potential clients who like the idea of having farm animals as investments, but lack the time or inclination to be involved hands-on.
One potential vehicle Pool is considering would involve a client funding a self-directed IRA, the proceeds of which would be used to purchase, raise and breed alpacas. The offspring of these alpacas would then either be sold or bred, and the money reinvested back into the self-directed IRA as cash. The money could also be used to buy other alpacas. "It could be a healthy market for investors interested in an alternative investment strategy," Pool says.
Advisors who have been through this process with clients freely admit that it's no cakewalk. There are obstacles that must be overcome. The learning curve is often steep. "It's simply a level of awareness of how to help your client satisfy their life dreams, but it's not easy by any means," says Pete Wheeler, CFP, ChFC, an advisor in San Diego who is counseling several clients in this regard.
Two of his clients, a husband and wife, developed a successful technology support company, sold it, and took several million dollars in proceeds and bought an avocado ranch outside San Diego. Wheeler says, "They are using lease income from the property of their former company to support their lifestyle while they build up their farm income."
Two other clients, a doctor and his wife, sold their home, put furnishings in storage and moved to Mexico, where they have established an orphanage to care for the children of prostitutes and drug addicts. Wheeler is writing a book entitled Activities, Things and Dreams, based on his experiences working with such clients.
Susan E. Galvan, co-founder and CEO of the Kinder Institute, worries that many people are too innocent when it comes to this existence. "You're living with nature, which is not always considerate," she cautions. Galvan recommends that advisors help clients "research what's actually involved in trying to be self-sustaining on the land. It's very labor-intensive. Unless they've grown up on a farm or ranch, people need to experience it in some way for a year or two" before taking the plunge. "You don't want to crush the dream, but the dream needs to be rooted in reality."
Sometimes the stress of the endeavor can be overwhelming. Ann-Marja Lander, a planner in Long Beach, Calif., saw her two clients' marriage break up over their attempts to turn a mansion in Lancaster, Pa., into a bed and breakfast. Originally, the couple's budget was approximately $200,000, and they had planned to spend possibly as much as $500,000 for the work on the mansion, the wife's childhood home. But unanticipated repairs and other expenses caused the costs to balloon to nearly $1.4 million.
The couple finally opened the B&B, and if the current level of occupancy holds, it is expected to gross approximately $100,000 in 2007-in an area of Amish country where the average annual income is about $29,000. But the 18-month process, during which the wife undertook work on the premises while the husband helped intermittently, meanwhile also holding down his job on the West Coast to meet expenses, was an ordeal that finally broke up the marriage, according to Lander.
"On the face of it, it was their dream," says Lander. "They had planned financially for this, but the unanticipated costs put a stress on their marriage they were unable to overcome. Every time they turned around, there was more money to be paid and more regulations to follow. They opened the B&B, but at a great cost to their relationship."
As we've seen, some boomers today are seeking an alternative lifestyle. But the modern version of going back to nature can involve recrimination and hardship.
Susan Galvan of the Kinder Institute has a final word: "You can live on the land and still be wired into the world for your income. You don't have to grow or build everything. Telecommuting
may be a more practical way to get back to nature."
Bruce W. Fraser, www.bwfraser.com/home, a financial writer in New York, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.