Lifestyle farming: the hottest new hobby for the modern-day wolves of Wall Street

America's wealthiest people are increasingly turning to the land in their spare time, writes Lydia Mulvany

A pig pictured on a farm in Liaoning province. REUTERS/Ryan Woo/File Photo
A pig pictured on a farm in Liaoning province. REUTERS/Ryan Woo/File Photo

During the week, Chris Andersen runs his Manhattan investment banking firm, GC Andersen Partners LLC.

On the weekends, he heads to his farm in New Jersey, where he shovels out corn cobs and bruised watermelons to feed his herd of Mangalitsa hogs, an especially tasty breed of pig from Hungary.

Andersen, 81, started his farm more than a decade ago on a lark. It's since turned into a passion, one that's produced 4,000 pigs across seven farms in three states.

He employs three full-time farmers and has even built a facility in Pennsylvania to produce charcuterie.

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Unlike investment banking, the farms are unprofitable. Andersen estimates he's spent over a million dollars each year for the last 10 years on them and is now at about break-even before capital expenditures.

"Being a farmer is a lot more complicated than most people realise," he says.

Although he may be doing it in a more expensive fashion than most, Andersen is part of a growing 'lifestyle farming' trend.

It's a hobby that wealthy Americans are increasingly devoting nights and weekends to. These individuals subsidise their hobby with other work, often in a nearby city.

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While a few thousand farms generate the lion's share of US food production, there are millions of small ones in the country. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 41pc of farms in the US are modest affairs whose operators have a primary occupation other than farming.

Houston-based tractor maker Mahindra North America sees lifestyle farming as the fastest-growing of all its markets.

There are a few obvious causes for the increase, starting with the wave of still-active baby boomers who are entering retirement. Also, in general, more Americans are interested in growing their own food.

As a hobby it can be quite expensive, but many of those on Wall Street have the means to be extravagant with their projects, and owning farms and elaborate country houses is a tradition for the wealthy.

In the US, there are also tax benefits to owning land that has an agricultural use - a commonly exploited loophole.

Jon McConaughy was a Wall Street stalwart for two decades before a hobby farm he started in 2004 morphed into a second profession. Double Brook Farm LLC in New Jersey came into being when he felt a pull to get back to the land.

Originally, he and his wife started the farm to feed themselves and their two children. Double Brook has since become a far larger operation, which includes animal and vegetable farms on hundreds of acres, a butcher shop, a bakery, a retail market, two restaurants, and a slaughterhouse.

It's a closed-loop, sustainable food system that McConaughy hopes can be a model for future farming.

"Deep down in all our genes, there's some desire to be able to look at what you've done at the end of the day and touch it and measure it," he says - and that is not really something that's true of a finance job.

Most lifestyle farmers aren't farming for profits, even if their operations are producing revenue. Instead, it's how they unwind. There's something calming about mowing pastures, moving around bales of hay, or taking care of animals.

Lee Montgomery spends his days building foundations for shopping malls and houses in California. But when he's done for the day, all he wants to do is farm his vineyard - he planted eight acres of grapes, 6,000 plants.

"Farming is very relaxing, like meditation and yoga. It's peaceful, fulfilling, and it's a good thing to fade into," Montgomery says, noting that he's hoping the hobby will turn profitable by the time he retires. "It's for people that don't want to sit around and watch TV or have too much energy. I do my job, then go home and work in the vineyard."

For Andersen, the draw was more elemental. In 2007 he had his first taste of jamón ibérico de bellota in Spain and fell in love. Andersen wanted to bring some of the pigs home, but there were US government restrictions on imports. He couldn't even bring in the ham, at the time.

"You can buy everything in New York," he says. "You can buy guns, drugs - but not Spanish hams."

So he found another breed that's a close cousin - the Mangalitsa. He calls the pigs "avocados with four legs" because their meat is predominantly unsaturated fat. Initially, he imported chestnut flour from France to feed them as he sought the perfect flavour of ham.

"I got into it to raise a better-quality animal and ultimately aim toward creating some of the better hams," Andersen says. "It's the most exciting and interesting thing I've ever done."

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