© FT montage; Getty, Bloomberg, Dreamstime

Timing, says Bob Paton, is critical for sowing vegetable crops. But when it comes to uprooting yourself from corporate life and settling into self-employment, you can’t always choose the moment.

Being a market gardener was his lifetime ambition. But it happened only after he retired from a decades-long career in IT management, 11 days before his 60th birthday.

Still, he grabbed his opportunity. “Grey hair and no hair is the future,” he says.

Running Hexhamshire Organics with his wife Ann, growing and selling fruit, vegetables, eggs and pork produced on six acres in Northumberland, is physically demanding. It generates a fraction of Paton’s former income, yet he loves it with a passion: “We’re so lucky to have the life we have.”

As the Covid pandemic triggers restructurings and redundancies, over-50s are having to re-evaluate their work prospects.

Market gardener Bob Paton with his wife Ann

Analysis of official figures by Rest Less, a jobs and community website for the over-50s, shows that by mid-2020 the number of over-50s in the UK claiming universal credit benefit had risen by 93 per cent in six months to nearly 600,000 people. Rest Less analysis also shows redundancies among over-60s rising sharply in 2020.

For many older workers, many of whom struggle to find re-employment, self-employment looks attractive. Of 4.97m self employed people in the UK in 2019, Office for National Statistics data shows almost a third — 1.58m — were 55 or over. About 45 per cent of the total are 50 plus.

However, self employment covers a huge spectrum. Some new entrepreneurs are professionals moving from employment to part-time consultancy, embracing the working from home trend.

For others, like 56-year-old Kath Wynn from Wallsend in Tyneside, personal circumstances are the trigger. A former care worker, she needs to be home-based because of a family member’s mental health problems. She is setting up a craft goods business, Summerhouse Gifts, and hopes to earn £5,000 — £10,000 annually: “That would be great.”

Then there are those like market gardener Paton, now 64, who treat self-employment as a full-on second career. “You have to be really committed to it,” he says. “We’re driven by the desire to make it a success.”

Age brings big benefits, he believes, including having more money to invest in starting up your own firm. In addition; “You have more business acumen as you get older. People have an awful lot of knowledge and experience.”

Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, concurs. Life experience, he says, can develop skills like patience, resilience and empathy as well as business knowhow. “Lateral thinking, when combined with logical reasoning and well-honed people skills, can really differentiate an older entrepreneur,” he says.

Paton acknowledges he does not have the same physical strength as in his 40s. “Ann says I need to pace myself a bit better,” he admits. But the upside is his business planning expertise: “Plan tomorrow today, next month this month; next year this year.”

A miner’s son from Ashington in Northumberland, he left school at 15 with no qualifications, except a geography O level. The only school essay he can remember writing was about vegetable growing. As his dad was determined young Bobby was not going down the pit, he joined the civil service, moved into computer programming, got a computing degree and, ultimately, became managing director of technology consultant Accenture’s north- east England operation, expanding its delivery centre to 650 people, and being awarded a CBE.

Aptitude and attitude are vital to working life, he believes. He intends “without a doubt” to continue Hexhamshire Organics through his 70s and — he hopes — beyond.

The roots of the business lie in his life-long gardening hobby and meeting Ann in his forties. But house hunting a decade ago made it a reality. The rural house the couple found came with six acres of land. They bought it, planted an orchard and obtained organic status through the Soil Association. His wife sold her delicatessen business in Newcastle and, a year before Paton retired from Accenture in July 2016, the business began operating.

Now they have 10 commercially sized polytunnels, two propagation greenhouses, Tamworth pedigree pigs, chickens and ducks. They deliver vegetable and fruit boxes to regular customers in Northumberland and Tyneside, where demand has doubled during lockdown. As lockdown eases, they will also resume their deliveries to two restaurants and their regular street market pitch.

Yet horticulture is seriously hard work. With their two part-time employees they will this year sow around 50,000 seeds, then transplant the seedlings. Aubergines, beetroot, cabbages, sweet peppers, celery, lettuces, red onions, parsley, lettuces and spinach are just a few recent sowings. Timing and quantities are precise; currently, they are sowing 1,920 celeriac.

Turnover in April 2021/2 is projected to be £150,000, with £50,000 gross profit. This is a third of Paton’s previous salary, but he doesn’t mind. “The enjoyment and satisfaction is off the scale.”

Compared with her previous business, Ann says this is “more of an adventure. It makes us very proud.” Like her husband, she anticipates many years of self-employment ahead. “As long as we can, we will.”

Get alerts on Next Act when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article