On the outskirts of a town of just four square miles, where temperatures dip to a frigid -10F in winter, Glenn Levine sits at his kitchen table and contemplates how much fencing he will need this month.
“It’s actually a complicated process,” he explains. “You can’t fence in the whole acreage, it’s just too expensive and inefficient. So you have to balance what you’re going to need to keep in and keep out against the income the livestock will generate. Then, you’ve got to know what type of fencing you’ll use. There’s actually quite a lot that goes into the economics of fencing.”
It is a long way from Washington, D.C.’s power center.
“I thought I’d be a partner at a major law firm and my son would go to St. Albans,” admits Glenn. But life has a way of unfolding while we’re out making other plans.
Glenn now spends his time comparing trellis systems for his pear orchard rather than negotiating complex commercial transactions. He worries how his heirloom pear trees will fare in Michigan’s unpredictable weather instead of obsessing on Perry Ellis’ sustainability initiatives. He navigates his son’s education and not the interminable feud in the Balkans. And he is learning the intricacies of rural fencing rather than settling border disputes in international territory.
Glenn imagined a life spent in the sleek offices of a well-heeled Washington law firm, but he instead became a stay at home dad — and a farmer.
The Beginning of the Beginning
Just a few short years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Glenn in this new life.
A 1989 graduate of the University of Miami Law School, Glenn returned to the Washington, D.C. area to spend seven years learning the intricacies of business bankruptcy and turnaround work.
In 1996, Glenn got an unexpected invitation. The Bulgarian government needed help implementing a new insolvency law to meet its World Bank commitments. Would Glenn be willing to head to Bulgaria? He was.
The work went well, and Glenn was quickly bitten by the international bug. When he returned to D.C. one year later, Glenn questioned whether to return to his safe corporate job. “Going to Bulgaria seemed so romantic and useful, but I had in mind I could turn around at any moment. So the first step was easy. There was no great courage on my part. It wasn’t until I was there that I realized I couldn’t really return to law firm life.”
Once Glenn recognized he had strayed–perhaps irrevocably–from the traditional path, things became more challenging. “The second step was harder. Everything was harder than I expected. Once I realized that I would need to learn from scratch, that everything was going to depend on what other people thought of me, I got comfortable not knowing what would happen next.”
What happened next was that Glenn talked himself into a job as a diplomat. He went to work for Ambassador Richard Schifter, Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State, who assigned him to one of the most intractable conflicts in Europe: the Balkan crisis.
“Ambassador Schifter explained what he wanted accomplished, and then he relied on his people to get it done. I have this recollection of him saying something like ‘don’t fail’ at the start of my first major overseas assignment for him. The primary instruction wasn’t ‘don’t make any mistakes,’ it was ‘accomplish the mission.’”
The office Glenn worked for was disbanded at the end of the Clinton Administration, but by then Glenn was committed to maintaining the relationships he’d developed across borders and among adversaries in the Balkans.
He took a civil service job with a U.S. Department of Commerce office involved in the region. It was the wrong move for Glenn, but it taught him an important lesson: the safe path is often the riskiest. “The office was filled with motivated and smart people, but it was hostage to career bureaucrats. It was the exact opposite of the office I’d come from. The best people didn’t stay long, and I quit a few days after 9-11 to try to be more useful elsewhere.”
Expecting the Unexpected
In 2003, Glenn and his family moved to Miami Beach for his wife to work as deputy director of The Wolfsonian, a little-known yet exquisitely curated museum. Almost over night Glenn’s life–and his perspective on life–changed.
Shortly after arriving in Miami, his then 3-year old son was diagnosed with a life threatening illness. Glenn’s family became his exclusive focus. He found himself the parent who would become the primary caregiver. “My wife would have preferred to be the parent to see him through treatment, but we were on her health insurance. So I happened into a role that did not come naturally. I stopped work to stay home and be at the hospital with my son.”
Thankfully, Glenn’s son made a complete recovery, and Glenn was able to go back to work. This time, he would enter a world even more exotic to him than Bulgaria or the Balkans: the fashion industry.
Glenn interviewed directly with Perry Ellis Chairman George Feldenkreis, but getting the job was an uphill battle. Feldenkreis had one question: “You’re a lawyer who worked for the government and knows nothing about my industry, and you want me to give you a job?” Glenn quickly took up the challenge. “I asked for the hardest, riskiest assignment he had — whatever was most likely to fail.” Feldenkreis finally agreed to take him on as a consultant, and just six weeks later Glenn was promoted to Vice President.
“They hired me just as they were closing on their biggest corporate acquisition, a fairly hostile purchase of a larger competitor coming out of Chapter 11. I was sent to the target company’s HQ to assist in its turnaround. To paraphrase my final instruction as I was leaving for the airport. ’You better not fail.’ It was music to my ears.”
He Bought the Farm
So how did a business lawyer turned diplomat turned advisor to a fashion empire come to be a farmer in rural Michigan?
“My wife and I had been talking about buying a farm for years. We would read the classifieds and that sort of thing for fun. We even looked at some land in central Virginia, and then south of Miami. But we never took action.”
“When our son completed his treatments in Miami, we took our first vacation in three years to visit my brother who was on the faculty at the University of Michigan. We saw our son thrive in just two weeks in a very tranquil midwestern setting. So we asked ourselves what were we waiting for? If we really wanted to have a farm, why not do it? So we did. We gave notice at our jobs, sold our house, and bought a farm.”
The farm sits on 16 acres about 12 miles west of Ann Arbor. It was the central piece of a 240 acre dairy operation that fell into neglect. “When we bought it, the house, barns and fields were a mess. The location is excellent, and the property’s disrepair energized us; it’s a blank slate. We’re bringing it back as an organic pear orchard. I’m planting perry trees from the heirloom varieties of Southwest England. In time, we’ll produce an artisanal hard pear cider. Michigan has a sophisticated brewing and cider-making tradition, so the skill set is here to make a first-quality perry.”
These days, you’ll find Glenn maintaining the fields on his John Deere 3032E tractor or tearing down an old barn and turning the scrap metal into a few bucks.
“It’s alot of work,” Glenn admits. “And there is so much to learn, but it is worth it.”
It is worth it when he discovers a swallow’s nest hidden in the eaves of his barn; or spring returns with an explosion of wildflowers along Bethel Church Road; or he watches his son documenting the local prairie flora with the precision of a scientist.
But the journey from powerhouse Washington lawyer to rural farmer and stay at home dad is not without its challenges. Glenn admits to feeling a certain uneasiness with his change in status. The first time he went to pick up his son at the end of the school day was a revelation: He was the only adult male present. “It was uncomfortable at first, and I still feel like I need to explain to the moms what I’m doing there.” But qualms aside, Glenn is clear that his status as a stay at home dad is best for his son. “My son benefits from some extra paternal coaching right now, and my wife’s career has really taken off. It’s just easier for me to do it.”
And it affords Glenn the time he needs to implement his vision for the farm. “My personal goal is to have my neighbors, who are ‘real farmers,’ regard my farm as respectable. I want to earn their respect over the years ahead. While I want to make a product that is accepted in the market, the people who will drink my perry will probably never see me or my place. I want to prove myself to my farming neighbors, who are mainly conventional producers of soy, corn and wheat. Earning a good reputation with them means a lot to me, and I’m teaching my son that a good reputation — not just as a citizen but as a professional, too — is something worth having. For my family, it means I have to learn to become an excellent farmer. Making money flows from that.”
Dealing With Uncertainty
Glenn admits that like everyone else he is afraid of failing. “Everything is new, so I am learning by doing. I’m always afraid of failing. Sometimes I do fail, but it’s momentary, and I regroup and try again. My wife knows me well, so she just says ‘don’t fail’.”
Does Glenn ever let his fears keep him up at night? “There are days when I worry that I’ve gone too far from the beaten path. But the worry is short lived. My kid and I will walk 5 miles along dirt roads to get donuts at the local tavern on winter Saturday mornings. I have a son who thinks walking 10 miles roundtrip with his father is fun and routine. This life offers something intangible that I can’t replicate with cash or a job title. It’s tied to this place and this local culture.”
It was a long road from Washington D.C. to the Balkans to rural Michigan, but Glenn Levine doesn’t regret a single step. “It took 25 years, but I’m finally a full-time farmer!”
Glenn’s Top 5 Quick Tips:
- Opportunities come through people so nurture those relationships
- Doing work you love will create the link you need from one job to the next
- Don’t be so wedded to the life you planned
- The safe path is often the riskiest
- Get a dog!