A Farm Sabbatical?

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Features Editor

One Pennsylvania Farm Family Makes It Happen

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Have you ever dreamed of being able to get away from the farm for a while? It’s not that you don’t love your farm or the job of farming, but maybe you’re feeling just a little burned out and would like some time away to get a recharge. But, if you left the farm for a nice, long break, there would be so many big questions. Who would take care of the farm? Who would feed the animals? How would your business continue to operate without you? How could you afford such a vacation?

These questions were asked, and answered, by the Orner family of Quiet Creek Herb Farm in Brookville, Pa., in Jefferson County, when they felt called recently to take a long sabbatical away from their farm. Rusty and Claire Orner and their two sons, Walker and Ashton, talked about their recent 7-month sabbatical on Friday, Feb. 8, during the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture conference in State College, Pa.

The Orners had been farming for 15 years when they began to seriously consider the possibility of taking a sabbatical. They knew they needed to get recharged to continue farming, and realized that 1 or 2 weeks’ vacation was not going to be enough.

On a Biblical basis, Claire felt that Leviticus 25 spoke to them — “every 7 years let the land rest” — and gave them Biblical “permission” to get away for a while.

The couple knew it would be important to go a long ways away, but weren’t sure how to fund the trip or how to manage the farm while they were gone.

In their decision-making process, the Orners had many questions about their idea of taking time away, such as: What would it mean to take a sabbatical? How could they find the time in an already overly busy schedule? How would their farm continue while they were gone, and how could they possibly surrender ownership of it, albeit temporarily? Who would manage the farm and the fields? What about their boys’ schooling? Where would they go? How much would it cost and how would they find the finances? What would they need to take along? What would their expectations be for the time away?

Ultimately, the family was able to leave for a 7-month period, from January to August 2012. They spent four months in the village of Harmons, Jamaica, volunteering with an organization they’d heard about called Won By One To Jamaica. They then spent an additional 3 months on the island of Corsica, France, in the Mediterranean Sea, where it turned out they had a cousin who owned a small property in the community and made it available to them.

But the pieces fell into place slowly, over a period of more than a year, before they left. They carefully considered several former employees to care for their farm while they were gone, and in the end were able to attract a formerly employed couple, Robbie and Jessi Orth, to move back to Quiet Creek Herb Farm to act as caretakers. The Orths moved to the farm and were mentored by Rusty and Claire about its management for nearly a year before the sabbatical. The Orners gave the Orths permission to manage as much of the farm as they were able when they were gone, and allowed them to set aside several components of the business to wait for Rusty and Claire’s return.

“We were at a state (where we understood) that we, and most Americans, own a lot of stuff,’” Claire said. “And that stuff’ was still going to be there when we got back. Stuff’ is stuff.’”

Claire, who is a certified teacher in Pennsylvania, was able to get permission from Walker and Ashton’s school teachers to continue their schooling during the sabbatical overseas, following the regular curriculum. The teachers and boys were in close contact over the school year, using email and Skype to stay in touch. Claire, who had homeschooled both boys up until fifth grade, set regular morning hours throughout the sabbatical for the boys, aged 11 and 14, to complete the day’s studies. While in Jamaica, she also ended up tutoring several Jamaican students during those same hours.

During the family’s time in Jamaica, all four family members volunteered to help locals with whatever tasks were needed, including helping to construct a new home.

The Orner family reported on what all they had gained during their sabbatical. The Harmon area of Jamaica is very poor, and together, the family decided to read two books while there on the culture of poverty.

Son Walker said he was shocked to see how small the 10-by-16 foot houses were in Jamaica. “But everything in Jamaica is done as a community — eating, doing laundry, building, etc.,” he said during the recent lecture.

“Americans think (they) need to show poor cultures how to do things,” Rusty said. “We wanted instead to learn.”

Rusty, who has a degree in agriculture from Penn State, said he wanted to learn from the Jamaicas anything that they could teach him.

“We learned and learned!” Rusty said.

He learned how to make charcoal; how to cut one chicken into 26 pieces; and how to dig and prepare cassava, a staple food.

“The Jamaicans were extraordinary,” Rusty said. “We will go back!”

Due to visa restrictions, the Orners needed to leave Jamaica within a certain time period. So they continued on to 3 months in Corsica. Once there, they discovered a farm nearby, similar to theirs back in Pennsylvania, and offered to volunteer at the farm with whatever was needed. The farm, Essence Natural Corse, grew herbs on many acres, then extracted and distilled them into essential oils, selling them to companies for perfumes and medicines. While in Corsica, the Orners spent 2 days per week working in the farm’s fields gathering herbs. They learned how to extract essential oils. Rusty and the boys built a gate and stone culvert for the farm as well.

In addition, the family studied the ancient history evident in the area, traveling to many old Roman sites. They road bicycles everywhere. They swam and snorkeled in the Mediterranean Sea.

“We ate great food!” Rusty said. “I gave myself permission to take a break.”

The family even decided to adopt the French habit of a two-hour lunch break (and work an hour later in the evening) when they eventually returned to their own farm, and found their farm employees preferred the new schedule. In Corsica, Rusty wrote and learned to forage for wild edibles like lambs quarters and wild arugula, and ate cheaply.

The entire trip was self-funded. Walker tracked all their expenses using Quickbooks software during the sabbatical to earn a merit badge (he earned 4 others during the trip as well), and found it cost them $20 per person per day ($80 for the family per day) to go on their trip. They took very little along and did everything they possibly could on the cheap.

During the recent lecture, the Orner family shared some of the outcomes of taking a sabbatical, such as: gaining respect for each other; making international friends; gaining a serving perspective; having new career choices; gaining language skills; having educational opportunities and most of all, a renewed love of Quiet Creek Herb Farm upon return.

“We were ready to come home!” Claire said.

By the end of their sabbatical, the Orners reported that they were recharged and revitalized, as they had hoped. Rusty was able to write two short booklets on soap-making and shittake-mushroom growing while they were away as well. They encouraged other farmers at the conference to consider taking such a break themselves.

“We left the farm burned-out, and came back refreshed,” Claire said.

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