Betting the Farm

Barbara and Bill Spencer have grown their retirement dream into a commitment to sustainable produce

For Barbara and Bill Spencer, the journey to Windrose Farm, a 50-acre oasis with sheep-studded rolling hills and Norman Rockwell-worthy apple orchards about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in Paso Robles, began with a Barbara's desire for a bucolic weekend refuge and eventual place to retire.

At the time Barbara started to look in the early 1990's, she was in her late '40s, a professional cellist in Los Angeles and Bill was working in real estate in the Paso Robles area. When she first began her search Barbara had in mind a small country nook of an acre or two. "To be honest, I'd never been much of a gardener like some of my friends in Los Angeles," she says. "Farming was just something I'd always wanted to do since I was [a child]."

When a diamond in the rough hit the real estate market, Bill says he "told Barbara if she wanted to ever really grow things, she should take a look at this property." Barbara found the farm was "basically dirt and a single-wide mobile home, but the soil was good… and when I tasted the [creek] water, it was ridiculously good."

Despite the potential, the farm was well beyond a freelance studio musician's modest budget. But when she showed it to her 85-year-old father, he offered to pitch in some seed money. Barbara bought the property during what she calls a "jump off the cliff" moment and suddenly found herself the owner of a 50-acre property more than 200 miles from her day job. The couple married shortly thereafter, a relationship that has proven essential to both their happiness and the health of the farm.

Still, the biggest investment, both financially and personally, was to come. For the next few years, Barbara spent most of her time scrounging up gigs in Los Angeles to help pay expenses while Bill worked in Paso Robles and tended to the farm. In the summer of 1995, Barbara says she "woke up one morning, and I was done, I knew I had to come home." She and Bill began investing all of their time and savings into building Windrose Farm into a sanctuary for exquisite heirloom produce.

But in today's era of big-box farming, life on a small farm is hardly as idyllic as those heirloom apples with names like Liberty and Strawberry Parfait suggest. Even trickier: when your retirement dreams involve starting a hyper-local farm from scratch (not exactly a top Wall Street investment pick; the value of land today far exceeds the price most consumers are willing to pay for a bushel of apples), all while educating the next generation on the environmental, economic and incredible flavor value of sustainable produce grown in small quantities.

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"We'll always be community activists," she says. "That has always been more important to us than farming as a business." (The farm has yet to make a profit; the couple continues to invest their retirement savings into farm maintenance and staff.)

Among the challenges has been finding the mental and (literally) physical strength to plow forward year after year, particularly when those ROI (return-on-investment) worksheets advise otherwise. "We've been led by industrial [farm corporations] to believe in this country that we actually have and deserve access to cheap food, that we don't have to pay farmers a living wage," says Bill, an outspoken advocate for educating the public on the politics of contemporary farming.

But at this point in their lives, a deep appreciation for the fine art of growing – produce, themselves and others – has given the Spencers the resilience to keep getting up when the rooster calls.

"The farm has driven us, not vice versa," says Bill, who handles everyday maintenance and long-term projects like installing solar panels. "It's like having a giant blank canvas that we began painting 22 years ago when Barbara and I met."

The learning curve, particularly with retirement savings, was steep. "I came from a business where I showed up with my cello fifteen minutes before an audition, there was nothing to plan ahead," says Barbara, who of late has developed a more restrained seedling strategy.

The Spencers continue to navigate industry challenges. Among them: consumer confusion over terms like organic. They have always grown sustainably, without using any chemicals, and eventually went through the extensive (and expensive) process of organic certification. Recently, they shifted to biodynamic farming, a more holistic approach — and one that requires additional investments. "It's about integrity… Organic standards have become watered down through corporate entities, the standards aren't as [rigorous] as people think," explains Bill. "Still, we're going to have to figure out how to sustain ourselves [on the farm] financially in the future it we want to survive."

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To that end, the couple has launched what they call a "farm club" though not surprisingly, their emphasis has been on community benefits. "It's still a foggy vision," Bill says of potential future revenue streams. Members, now 200 strong, are not required to buy produce as in a traditional CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model. Instead, they are encouraged to stop by for a chat (many farms are not open to the public due to the time commitment involved), participate in farm events like canning classes and sure, should they be interested, buy produce. A new on-site farm stand, opening next month, will initially be run on the honor system.

But if there's one thing the Spencers have learned the past two decades, it's to keep after those Norman Rockwell dreams at any age, no matter what the challenges. "We only have one requirement," says Barbara of the farm club. "That our members are mentally supportive of farming."


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