PICTURE ABOVE: Mike and Maryann Meeks are building their second rural lifestyle dream on 63 acres near San Antonio, Texas.

When it comes to observations about the hard-to-define hobby farmer, few in the popular “What Rural Lifestylers Want from You!” series can share more light on things for dealers than Mike Meeks. Having just “traded up” his first rural property for something bigger and better, Meeks has an interesting personal story. But he also knows a thing or two about iron peddling, having retired in 2010 after a long career in operations and management for Caterpillar’s Holt dealership group.

In this article, Meeks shares the driving forces behind his nearly half-a million investment (to date), and how equipment dealers can capitalize on the growing numbers of people retiring and seeking a country life in their golden years.

Trading Up

While Meeks and his wife are from military families, they consider themselves as “country folk.” He says, “There’s no way we would live in the city.”

Meeks’ new property is actually his second rural homestead, having started with 25 acres in Marion, Tex., in 1990. But he and his wife, Maryann, a veterinarian, were dreaming of a bigger property on which they could build a new home — for themselves and their horses. In particular, they wanted a property with some elevation (“Our other land was as flat as a table,” says Meeks) and water.

Meet the Rural Lifestylers

Mike Meeks, 52, retired Caterpillar dealership executive, and wife, Maryann, veterinarian. Hobbies include horses (dressage competition), street cars, tinkering in the machine shop and piloting his Piper J3 Cub and RV6A aircraft. Two children, Jeremy and Michaela, who competes in eventing and cross-country equine events.

Property: Bought 63 acres of brush-covered creek property in April 2010. Constructed a horse barn with 1,400-square foot luxury apartment above it, with plans to build a new 2,500-square foot home on the property. Father-in-law resides on refurbished cabin.

Animals: 8 horses. Also spotted on the property are armadillos, deer, turkey, rattlesnakes and copperheads.

Equipment: Mahindra D3505 tractor, Bobcat CT 3335, 40-hp, 4wd tractor with front-end loader, box blade and 5- and 6-ft shredder, Dixon commercial ZTR mower, two EZ-Go utility vehicles, two Affordable Trailers gooseneck trailers, two horse trailers (4- and 2-horse), Phillips shredder, Armstrong Ag Landscape rake, Atlas 6-foot box blade, Armstrong fork attachment. Also rented Caterpillar D4G and D8 dozers, a Caterpillar 613C scraper and Rome rootplow for initial work on the land.

Primary dealership: Bill’s Tractor & Equipment, Ltd., Adkins, Tex. (Bought his first tractor from Bill Bailes in 2000).

They found a 63-acre site that was conveniently located within an hour’s drive of both San Antonio and Austin. But what it needed most was a buyer with some imagination. “It was totally overgrown with brush,” says Meeks. “When the owner showed it to us, he wouldn’t even leave the truck. We put on our snake boots on and trudged through the mesquite brush — it was shoulder-high.”

A pilot, Meeks flew over the top of a property dominated by mesquite and cactus, not to mention red oak, live oak, ash, pecan, and persimmon trees. He immediately saw the potential of the property and where they’d situate their new home and horse barn. Sealing the deal was the fact that Cibalo Creek rolled through three-quarter mile of the property, creating an idyllic setting for campfires, canoeing and relaxing and listening to the water.

The Work Begins

Meeks admits that about a month of their purchase of the land in April 2010, he did wonder, “What the hell did I just do?” Here’s a summary of what he took on after signing the papers.

Root-plowing 50 acres. Meeks says the mesquite root growth on the property was unbelievable. “The land had once produced high-quality coastal-hay and, being equestrians, we wanted to get it going again for our horses. For 45 straight days, we cleared the land from daylight until dark. We disked it several times to reclaim that pasture.”

Reclaiming the Pond

The pond, across from which the horse barn and apartment would be situated, was a mess, neglected after a breach of the dam years before. “We rented a Cat D4 dozer and 613C loader-scraper to clean out all the silt and cut and rebuild the 60-foot wide spillway.” A large culvert and road were put in as well. His son is stocking the pond with bass.

Mike Meeks’ new property was so overgrown with brush that they worked on nothing but clearing the land “from daylight to dark” for 45 days.

Clearing land for the horse barn. A house stood where Meeks wanted the new horse barn to go. “I jerked it down with the tractor, broke it up and lit it off.” The old cabin that stood on a hill overlooking the creek was destined for a similar fate, until Meeks’ 78-year-old father-in-law eyed it for a refurbishing project. It’s now a nice little home that will keep Maryann’s dad close by.

While the property has been a labor of love for Meeks, a question about his time invested caused him to do a little math. “We’ve been out here for now, and worked 10-14 hours a day, 6 days per week.” That’s a passion, not a hobby.

Meeks has been working with Bill’s Tractor (a dealership owned by the Bailes family in Adkins, Tex.) since he got started on his rural lifestyle 10 years earlier. He credits the Bailes with helping him understand what he truly needed for the new land and avoiding a costly mistake.

“I was hell-bent on buying a bigger tractor,” recalls Meeks. “But Rick Bailes came out here, walked the land and found out what I wanted to do. He fit me with the right machine. For this property, the smaller tractor was what I needed with the hills and for navigating through the trees. With the smaller tractor, I can still maneuver within the trees with the loader on the front.”

Once Meeks sells the Marion property, he’ll have two tractors for his chores, which will soon include cutting, harvesting and transporting hay.

Coming into Sight

The horse barn and apartment is the property’s pièce de résistance — at least until the new custom home goes up. To call the 40 x 60-foot structure a “barn” is something of a misnomer. This immaculate building features 5 horse stalls, clamshell doors, feed room, tack room and hay storage on the end and no detail was left untouched.

Upstairs is a 1,400-square-foot luxury apartment featuring two large bedrooms, full bath and gourmet kitchen, complete with granite countertops. “Maryann and I will live in the apartment while we build the new house and, eventually, my daughter will live here.” The balcony off the master bedroom provides the best view of the place, says Meeks, gazing over the pond below and emerging hay pasture in the background.

Sound Advice for Dealers

Meeks says that while plots may become smaller in acreage, he sees the rural lifestyle trend continuing, and providing good numbers for dealers who want to capitalize on an opportunity to sell small tractors and implements to more potential buyers than ever existed before.

A luxury apartment, with a balcony providing the best view of the property, sits atop the new horse barn. The couple will live in the apartment while building their new custom home.

With his dealership background, Meeks was asked what advice he would give dealers looking to offer a differentiating service to rural lifestylers like he and Maryann. “It can’t just be about the purchase transaction,” he says. “I measure dealers on their support — parts and product support. The question can’t just be if the product works, but if the client is still happy 6-8 months later. Check in, and be ready to respond.

“A few times when I’ve been in the dealership, I’ve seen the hobby guy at the counter who doesn’t know what questions even to ask or which direction to take. If I were the dealer, I’d focus on spending 2 hours with that customer, walking their land and putting together a plan for what they actually need. These guys are different from the farmers who’ve grown up around it and who know the equipment forward and backward.”

But even when you accept that the customers are different, Meeks says they’re still hard to categorize. Some want to do the maintenance, others won’t have a clue what to do, and in some cases, women will be operating the equipment more so than then men, he says.

Meeks believes education is a key, referencing some of the car-buying 101 programs that targeted female auto buyers and the Cat Care Meetings he was exposed to in his dealership days. “You’ve got to educate these customers enough so they know when they need to call the dealership. If they don’t understand that, things will deteriorate fast and they’ll face a bad surprise.”

In terms of marketing to attract rural lifestylers, Meeks’ advises dealers to get connected with the custom home builders. “Go find the builders who are showing 10-acre home sites. They’re the ones on the front-end with that customer and maybe there’s a package that could be worked out, or at least some kind of demo program.” And while the older rural lifestylers likely don’t think twice about writing a check, financing is more important for the younger couples, and Meeks says most dealers can do better with connecting the dots for customers on financing.

While the biggest equipment headache he faced was the logistics of moving the dozers in and out, he said the next two on his list could be addressed by a forward-thinking equipment dealership. “Fuel delivery and field service are things that some customers don’t think about. Most of these customers are too small to warrant a trailer to bring their equipment in and many wouldn’t even own a truck to haul one with. The dealer who brings out fuel and who has a service truck to come out and fix the equipment ought to make a lot of money.”

His final piece of advice is simple. “Gain their confidence and trust, treat them right and honestly and they’ll stay with you.”

What’s Next?

Mike Meeks’ Caterpillar experience helped in knowing what he needed to rent in the way of heavier equipment to reclaim the pond and spillway.

In just over a year, Meeks has spent about $450,000 on his piece of Texas paradise. But he’s not done yet.

Next on the plate for Meeks is building a three-bedroom, 2,500-square foot ranch home, and then additional projects like another barn for his trailers and the fabrication shop he wants onsite.

His next equipment purchases will be additional trailers (“Don’t forget to sell trailers to rural lifestylers,” he says.) and full lineup of haying equipment now that he has the land to justify it. And after seeing so many neighbors asking to tour his horse barn/apartment, he’s toying with the idea of establishing a “barn-a-minium” business — a chance to use his background and skills to fill a niche for the growing rural lifestyler market himself.