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The Orr family: Sticking together, no matter where the road takes them

Published on 11 November 2009

Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Georgia – even Germany. Like the Johnny Cash song, Jon Orr of Orrson Custom Farming Ltd. has been everywhere, man.

Apple Creek, Ohio, is where he calls home, though. That’s where his father, Jim, and grandfather, Clayton, began a dairy partnership in the 1960s. They called it Orrson Farms, combining their last name with the word son.

The namesake stuck as the family decided to sell their dairy herd in 1995 and transition to custom harvesting. Orr’s passion was being in the fields, and he graduated with a degree in crop production from Ohio State University.

At first, Orr and his father expanded their crop operation, only to slowly lose rental acreage due to land sales and development. Purchasing land around their home was next to impossible, with farms selling for more than $6,000 per acre. That lead them to begin a “gypsy life,” a term that Orr and his crew have heard many times over the past 12 years.

The adventure begins in April. With about 14 to 15 people, seven or eight trucks and three semitrailers of equipment, Orr heads to south and central Georgia and northern Florida to cut rye grass for dairy producers. From there, it’s back up north to Ohio and Indiana, where the group spends the summer months harvesting haylage.

In July, it’s back to Georgia to start chopping corn silage. The crew then heads to Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and even into Michigan until September or October. When Orr travels to new areas, he says he always tries to work with other harvesters that are local to the area.

“There’s enough work for all of us, as long as we stick together,” he says. “It’s when we try to undercut one another where we run into problems.”

Besides Orr and his father, his crew typically consists of wife, Melissa, a handful of U.S. employees, and H2A laborers from South Africa that are hired through an agency. Orr says one local crewmember, Romeo, has been operating the pushing tractor for eight years.

Orr and his family also grow crops at their home farm, and they operate a manure-hauling business. Although the winter months don’t call for much time in the fields, Orr says they keep plenty busy with maintenance on equipment and getting things ready for the next season.

“We always seem to break enough things that it takes all winter to get everything fixed,” he says. “And the winters seem to be too short to get everything done.”

Although Orr may be busy no matter what the season, that doesn’t mean he’s not having fun.

“We work hard, but we make time to play, too,” Orr says.

Part of that time to play for Orr involves traveling to Hanover, Germany, every other year for AgriTechnica, the world’s largest exhibition for agricultural machinery. Orr says all of the self-propelled foragers are made in Europe, and he enjoys being able to talk to the engineers and find out what they’re building.

He typically travels to Germany with some friends from U.S. Custom Harvesters, an association for professional custom harvesters. The association itself provides opportunities for travel, as the annual convention is held in a different area of the country each year. The March 2010 meeting will be held in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Because Orr serves on the board of directors, he also attends the convention planning meeting each year in Kansas. He’s a unique board member because he is the only representative for silage cutters.

Orr says the organization started out as an association for wheat harvesters and then grew to incorporate silage cutters, as well. Although trucking issues are different between the two industries, a lot of challenges remain the same and provide great opportunities for roundtable discussion.

“We’re all farmers at heart,” Orr says. “When you get right down to it, that’s where we all started.”

In addition to activities with U.S. Custom Harvesters, Orr spends his spare time visiting customers, attending other trade and equipment shows and giving speeches and tours. In January, he will attend the Ag Connect Expo in Orlando, Florida, and the following month, he’ll be on the other side of the country for the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California.

Because of his involvement in these organizations and the networking he has been able to do, Orr feels he has a support system no matter what time zone he’s in.

He says he enjoys calling up friends from California, Texas and Wisconsin to find out what’s working for them and how he might be able to incorporate it into his work.

“I think if we’d all network more, it would really help us out,” he says.

Besides the friendships he’s made, Orr says his favorite aspect of his career choice is being able to see so many different areas of the country.

“It’s exciting for me to be in new places and to be outside,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to handle being inside all day long.”

Wife Melissa, who also manages the bookwork, couldn’t agree more.

“It’s exciting to always be going to new places and meeting new people,” she says.

Although there’s plenty to love about the life they lead, the Orrs are quick to point out one of the biggest challenges – being away from their children.

Family time
Orr says many wheat harvesters are able to take their family with them on the road. For silage cutters, it’s a different story.

“There aren’t really jobs for kids that aren’t old enough to drive, and their school schedule doesn’t align with the harvesting schedule,” he says.

Although Orr and his wife are on the road a lot, they do their best to make up for lost time when they can be home.

“Football season is a bit tough, but winter sports work out. I try to make it to as many of the kids’ basketball games as possible,” he says. “My wife and I enjoy what we do, and our kids understand.”

“They have never known anything different since we’ve been doing this for most of their lives,” Melissa adds. “It’s tough on them, but I do think they feel what we’re doing is pretty neat.”

Orr says their situation has given him a lot of respect for American soldiers, many of whom haven’t seen their children for years – not just weeks or months. And as far as his children following in his footsteps, Orr says it’s a little too early to tell, but he’ll support them no matter what they decide.

“I just hope I’ll be smart like my father was and let the next generation lead instead of trying to force them to do what I want.”  FG

To learn more about the Orrs and their custom farming business, check out their website. Jon’s mother, Suzy, is responsible for the site and maintains a monthly blog of the family’s adventures – both on the road and on the home farm.