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From law office to the farm? A reader wonders if it’s possible.

Hi Joan,
I am 50-something and have always been interested in farm life. I am currently enrolled at Sierra College for a degree in sustainable agriculture. I have been a secretary since I graduated secretarial school in 1978 . I have been a legal secretary for the past 27 years and am ready to get out of the office and into the dirt. Am I crazy? I have been married 28 years, raised a family, and am ready to change career paths.

Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.

Happy New Year!


Dear Kelly,

Thank you for your letter. Like you, many mid life professionals have an itch for a new carer. But few take the big first step to invest in a new direction as you have. BRAVO for going back to college mid life! You are far from crazy. You are smart, aspirational and courageous. And by writing to me you are reaching out for knowledge and direction. BRAVO, too for your field of study, sustainable agriculture, which is a field gaining a lot of traction, and one that clearly benefits our planet and all of us! And I love the way you position your situation as ‘getting out of the office and into the dirt”.

There are many issues that you need to consider in making your move off the mountain and into farm life:

  1. FINANCIAL:  A key aspect of careers is livelihood. You and your husband need to determine your financial picture and what kind of income you’ll need going forward. You mentioned he’s slowing down, but does he plan to retire? If so, do you have time to do some unpaid internships? You need to assess your full financial picture in determining a big change. And especially when we’re in our 50s, 60s and 70s, we need to look at planning which is sensitive to timing and aging; things like social security, medical insurance, etc. As I always said to my son growing up, “Dream big but remember to brush your teeth everyday!”
  2. RESEARCH:  Please see the career center at Sierra College and learn about the job opportunities in your field. See if there are successful alumni in your field you can meet with.  If you haven’t already done so, build close relationships with your professors. See if they have career ideas, research projects or connections for you. Consider doing INTERNSHIPS to see how you like the field and what specific jobs appeal to you. Research also to find professional groups in California that are focused on Sustainability. Get to know the PEOPLE in your field. Look to the Sonoma County wine industry where there is a new commitment to sustainability. Agricultural sustainability is a HOT HOT area and you’ll want to see the job needs that the industry has, and you’ll want to begin to build a NETWORK of people in the industry who know your capabilities. I’d Google to find key people in ‘sustainability agriculture’ in California and in the counties you’d be interested in living and working. Google searches can lead to a LOT! Mine them.
  3. VOLUNTEER: If you have the time or can make the time, look to get a volunteer internship in a farm, non profit, winery, a place where you think you’d ideally like to work in the sustainability field. It is usually much easier to get a foot in the door if you offer to volunteer. Sometimes, intern volunteers are then offered a paid job. You might want to consider that soon, while your husband is still bringing in an income. Might you be able to do your law work part time and work part time in your new field?
  4. GET YOUR MARKETING TOOLS READY: Develop, both online and in print version, a portfolio of your capabilities, skills and any letters of recommendation coming from both current employers, professors and anyone you’ll intern with in your new field. You have a 27 year track record as a law secretary and some of those skills are transferable to any job. You probably bring things like commitment, reliability, communication skills, project management and more. Make sure your resume reflects all of those attributes, too. Update your Linkedin profile and update your resume. Have your marketing tools ready for your outreach. Though do be mindful to protect your day job. Think through how and when to talk to your current employer about changes in your career.
  5. INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS: Through your professors, career center and professional organizations try to find people who will give you 30 minutes of their time for you to ask them career questions. Prepare for these ‘asks’, explaining that you’re looking to transition to the field of sustainability with a degree in it from Sierra Foothill by (the date) and you’d like to learn more about the actual jobs in the field. Tell them how you heard of them and mention a fact or two about what attracts you to their farm, their winery, their organization, etc. Then, prepare intelligent questions in anticipation of the meetings. Ask them how they got their start. What they find most interesting, most challenging. Ask them the skills and capabilities that are most important for success in the field. Remember that this is NOT an interview, do not ask for a job. If they are impressed with you, they might mention job opportunities but wait for them to bring it up. Do ask if there are other people in the field they suggest you meet with.
  6. DREAM AND EXTEND TO MEET: This is my new recommendation. I suggest to my clients in career transition to start with a creative exercise. Find a quiet place and give yourself 30-45 minutes. Meditate or sit quietly and ask yourself to imagine your ideal career situation. What kind of environment? What kind of people? What tasks are you doing? What does it look like? Feel like? What is the mission of the organization? What kind of compensation can you expect? What kind of lifestyle? Write down all these thoughts. Then, go to a more analytical approach and put together a prioritized list of what is important to you. Then do some outreach to find places that match your dream situation!  And share your dream with your husband. Transitions work best when both spouses are on board. Often, one will be energized by the enthusiasm of the one in transition. Kelly, I do believe that with careful planning, research and executing on a well structured plan, you can make that move from the office to the dirt! All the best to you, and onward in your contribution to sustainability on our planet. Bravo!

Coach Joan

Note: Next week I’ll begin the local career stories starting with Will Bucquoy, photographer.

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