When Rural Lifestyle Dealer interviewed George Dearborn, he had just finished installing new electrical wiring in a refurbished house on a 15-acre hideaway property he and his wife Beverly bought 4 years ago northeast of Ocala, Fla.
"Fortunately, I was born with the ability to read something in a book and at the same time visualize it," says the retired financial manager. "It's allowed me to do things inside the house and on the acreage I never dreamed of."
Parked nearby, outside Dearborn's "this old house" three-bedroom, three-bath project is a 57-hp Montana tractor and a lineup of small implements he and his wife purchased to "work their spread." Still a work-in-progress, they hope to turn the property into a profit-making enterprise one day, but one that won't interfere with their flexible lifestyle. "We primarily think of this property as a source of rejuvenation," says Dearborn. "It doesn't need to make us a living."
When they first bought the parcel, they planned to tear down the 2,000-square-foot house and rebuild. But after stripping off the cosmetic siding, tile and plaster, they discovered termite-free studs, rafters and hardwood floors. "Here was easily $40,000 to $50,000 worth of impossible-to-find lumber, and we decided we couldn't just throw it away," says Dearborn. "I'd often thought it would be a great experience to bring an old house back to life and so that's been my goal for nearly 2 years."
Classic Boomer Behavior
Meet the Rural Lifestylers: George and Beverly Dearborn
Occupation: George: retired public accountant and corporate chief financial officer; Beverly: certified public accountant.
Property: 15 acres in rural Marion County, Fla.; also maintain primary residence in Cape Coral, Fla.
Year Purchased: 2004.
Equipment: Montana 57-hp tractor, Howse 10-foot mower, Howse 6-foot disk; Howse 6-foot box blade, Howse post-hole auger, and Montana 6-foot Rototiller.
Animals: Husky dog, Sophie.
Dearborn is among a fast-growing number of "boomer" rural lifestylers who love to take on new challenges as they opt out of good-paying executive-level jobs that earned them the right — and the financial security — to exit their fast-paced professional lives and try something new. In 2004, Dearborn retired from his CFO position at age 55. Previously, he served 20 years as deputy tax collector for Lee County, Fla.
While still serving as board chairman at Camelot Community Care, a nonprofit child welfare and behavioral health organization, he plans to relinquish the role this year and move into "official" retirement. Beverly, meanwhile, plans to continue as a certified public accountant for Lee County. The couple maintains a primary residence in the coastal city of Cape Coral, planning to frequently "commute" up I-75 to enjoy their Marion County property.
"We've grown weary of the growing population, horrible traffic and a weather pattern of 'hot and hotter' in South Florida," Dearborn explains. "We love this area around Marion County. It maintains a slower-pace, has a rural flavor — the horse farms are drop-dead gorgeous — and land is still relatively affordable. We also enjoy a change of seasons, with much cooler winter and spring temperatures than down south. It's ideal for escape."
What to Grow?
With both Dearborns having "accountant mentalities," they'd like to see their land investment pay off — but with certain caveats. Most important is a product that can be easily grown and harvested without high daily maintenance or lots of hired labor. So far they've tried watermelons, pumpkins, cantaloupe and sweet corn, with plans to experiment with different crops and varieties for the next 5 years.
They couldn't believe how well watermelons grew on their loamy sand soils, compared to the marginal melons they got in their Cape Coral garden. "We wound up with over 5,000 melons last year with no real market," Dearborn recalls. "We had fun though. We gave a lot of them to Busch Gardens and Silver Springs theme parks to feed to wildlife. Elephants love melons."
This year, they'll expand the sweet corn acreage. Down the road, after they've gained more experience and determined their crop choices, they hope to develop contracts with local distributors for whichever crops they decide to pursue.
Choosing a Dealer
The Dearborns also applied that "accountant mentality" to selecting an equipment dealer. They approached their tractor and implement purchases like they would any good business decision, not with an attitude of "let's go buy some new toys."
Dearborn says they basically interviewed every tractor retailer in Marion County, explaining what they were planning. They weren't sure what they'd be growing or how much actual field work they'd do, and needed professional input.
"We were looking for cost-effectiveness, but it wasn't all about money. Attitude played a big part in our decision. We avoided dealers who sold too hard — some seemed to be mentally adding up the dollars on a big sale of shiny new machines," Dearborn explains.
They finally settled on Duggan Bros., Ocala, for three reasons.
John Duggan, Jr., the owner, and his staff seemed to be on the same wavelength as the Dearborns, giving them his full personal attention. "John seemed more interested in what we were doing and wanted than what he might think we needed. He didn't oversell. For example, other dealers tried to convince us we needed a front-end loader, four-wheel drive, an air-conditioned cab and a trailer. John suggested we take it slow, and that we could always add those things later."
Their first purchases included the 57-hp 2WD tractor, a 6-foot disk and 5-foot box blade.
Second, they compared prices and quality and were convinced Duggan's price on the tractor they were eyeing offered a lot for the money. "We got a tractor in the horsepower range we wanted for $10,000 less than other similar-sized tractor brands we'd checked out," he explains.
Third, Duggan Bros. makes a policy of prompt delivery of new equipment and pickup when repairs are needed. Repairs are done quickly and professionally. When a buried stump recently tore up Dearborn's disk, a Duggan Bros. truck picked it up and the shop had it back in working condition within a couple days.
"With that kind of service, there's no reason for us to invest in a trailer. Other dealers said if a piece of equipment needed repairs, we'd have to bring it to them," he recalls.
On the other hand, when, over the years, they decided they needed a bigger box blade, a 10-foot mower, a post-hole auger and a roto-tiller, they didn't hesitate to buy from Duggan Bros. And this year, the Dearborns are evaluating their option to trade in their 3-year old tractor for a bigger, 4-WD, 75-hp model — complete with a cab and air conditioning.
With their property still in its early stages, they may well add the front-end loader, trailer and other implements as their dream of rural life comes together.