Figure Out What's Next

Finally, He Bought the Farm

career change joop koopman Sep 23, 2009

by Joop Koopman

photo via pixabay

Once Barry Meinerth dreamed of being a veterinarian...

He ended up with a big job in magazine production, but a few years ago his lifelong love of animals led him to buy a farm, and now he produces alpaca wool—and self-fulfillment—instead.
Barry Meinerth with a prize-winning alpaca

After more than three lucrative, satisfying but also grueling decades in big jobs at publishing house Time Inc.—including two-hour commutes each way for 20 years—Barry Meinerth is finally living his dream. Three years ago he bought an alpaca farm, giving his life a twist that sets him apart from many of his ex-publishing peers who were also eased out of senior executive positions as their companies went on cost-cutting sprees.

Meinerth takes stock every year when he meets with a close-knit group of former magazine production executives. “Some are playing golf a lot, others are plain depressed,” he says. “I am the only one who has got something really fun going—I am physically more fit, sleep better, and both my weight and blood pressure are down.”

Once, he wanted to be a veterinarian

Meinerth, 62, couldn’t make it into veterinarian school in his college days, but a love of animals and a desire to get involved in animal husbandry never left him. After attending Norwich University in Vermont, then later getting his MBA from New York University, he joined Time as a trainee and began steadily climbing the corporate ladder. The father of three rose to become senior vice president of production in 1996, a position he held until the end of 2007, with responsibility for a billion-dollar paper, printing and distribution budget.

Despite getting a three-year contract that would have had him retire in 2010 after 35 years of service, the ax fell two years ago. But Meinerth had already set in motion what has today become a full-fledged farming career. A few years before losing his job he had bought his first alpaca, an exotic animal related to the llama with fine long fur. In 2006, he bought an alpaca farm in Vermont. “I was mentally prepared to do something else,” says Meinerth, who had begun spending most weekends at the farm, driving up from his home in Connecticut.

Alpaca farming and herding, an ancient pursuit in the Andes mountains, where the animals are used both for fiber and food, didn’t get its start in the United States until 1984 when the first animals were imported. Here they are used strictly for their fine wool fiber. The average farm has between five and 10 animals, but some farms in Oregon and Ohio are home to several thousand alpacas. The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association says it has 4,000 members who collectively own more than 100,000 alpacas.

Meinerth’s farm counts 80 of the animals, 10 of which belong to owners who have yet to buy their own farm. “They are a luxury product,” Meinerth says, with selling prices starting at around $2,000. Pregnant females can fetch up to $12,000, while award-winning alpacas go for as much as $50,000. Part of his income derives from stud fees, which run up to $4,000. There is an art to the carefully managed breeding process that aims to improve the offspring’s quality and quantity of wool. On average, only 10 percent of alpacas produce quality fiber.

Meinerth earns $20,000 per year from selling yarn. He has set up a small yarn store on his sprawling 55-acre property and established a few knitting clubs. But his expenses are considerable. He spends more than $20,000 a year on hay, grains, veterinarian bills and farm help. He hopes to eventually clear between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. The economic downturn kept him from selling a single animal in a nine-month stretch; however, there are attractive tax write-offs when times are lean. 

Meinerth recently sold a two-month-old alpaca for $2,000 to a Long Island couple eyeing their own farm. This part of the business, says Meinerth, “requires building trust.”

Lots of intangibles

Many of the rewards of Meinerth’s new career are intangible. An avid skier and fisherman, he built a fishing camp to take advantage of an unspoiled 800 feet of riverbank on his property. Away from email and the telephone most of the time, he loves the physical labor and the more natural cycle of both rising and retiring early. His farm is the perfect setting to enjoy retirement, he says. “I was satisfied by a long career. Sure, I would have been excited to make it to 35 years, but being let go was also a relief.” 

One of his remaining significant challenges is to persuade his wife Marcia to spend more time at the farm. Having poured her “heart and soul” into designing and building the family’s dream house in Darien, Conn., she is reluctant to give it up and take leave of her many local cultural and charitable engagements. She grew up in New York and doesn’t feel drawn to farming. But Meinerth is confident Vermont’s own appeal, by way of numerous cultural institutions and causes, will eventually win her over.

“I stay busy with manual stuff and I feel phenomenally well mentally,” Meinerth says. A recent afternoon had him operating his large lawn mower. “I had my iPod on. The sun was shining, and the river flowing. It was very peaceful and I felt pretty darn content.”


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