Aug 15, 2013
Farm rallies to rebuild after tornado devastation

After pouring every ounce of energy into building a flourishing agritoursim business near Oklahoma’s largest city, owner Glenn Orr and his family never counted on it all being shredded to pieces in just a few short minutes on a historically stormy day in May.

The smaller nearby town of Moore might have received much of the early national media coverage of the massive tornado that devastated the area, including Oklahoma City, on May 20 of this year. Word soon spread regarding the impact the EF-5 twister had on a nearly 10-year-old family-friendly attraction that had become an agritainment magnet for the entire region but was squarely in the path of the deadly tornado.

“When people asked me if we would rebuild, I told them if it were just me at 81 years of age, no I wouldn’t,” said the retired veterinarian who began the farm as an amusement, educational and history-sharing outlet for young people and their families.

“But for the family, and for the employees and all for all of the people, we’ve got to rebuild,” Orr said he had concluded shortly after the reality of the storm damage set in.

Glenn’s son Tom, 48, owns and operates the year-round farm with his father and Tom’s wife Debbie. The Orr Family Farm has 10 full-time staff members and employs approximately 20 people part time.

Still busy in mid-July clearing debris from the 106 acres, Orr jumped off his Bobcat just long enough to reveal in an interview the operators of the business are diving headfirst into a reconstruction project they hope will lead to a grand reopening of the facility on Sept. 28, in time for what is typically a busy fall season.

The Orr Family Farm and Celestial Acres are two separate entities located on property that has been in the family since 1977. Started in 2004, Orr Family Farm has featured a zip line, animal barn, giant jumping pillows, train rides, pony rides, pedal cars, carousel and other interactive experiences. The farm also hosts weddings, group events and field trips throughout the year.

“In total we have about 15 buildings that are now stripped of metal that’s been hauled off,” Orr said. “We’ve started to repair the basic structures on every one of them.”

Orr and his family opened the Orr Family Farm in 2004. The Orr family has four children, 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The farm received a substantial amount of storm damage to property from the 17-mile long, 1.3-mile-wide tornado, such as barns, event buildings and attractions. The winds mangled a vintage 1974 carousel and left splintered beams and twisted metal strewn about the property.

Although having primarily operated as a horse farm, pumpkin sales and a 5,000-square-foot corn maze are among the agriculture-related features. An emphasis is placed on displays and presentations that show the area and state’s strong farming heritage. An element of the soon-to-be rebuilt attraction will be a new focus on educating the public about the important use of composting in agriculture and society.

Celestial Acres is an adjacent thoroughbred horse training facility also operated by the Orrs. Before the tornado, Celestial Acres included an 85 x 200 foot indoor arena, four barns with stalls, horse walkers, turnouts and paddocks. All were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

All animals from the Animal Barn at the Orr Family Farm were found safe as well as ponies used for pony rides at the farm. While 34 horses survived at Celestial Acres, dozens more were killed. An exact count is undetermined since the horses housed at the facility are privately owned.

All staff members from the Orr Family Farm were safe and unharmed after the severe storm. Glenn Orr said six people were huddled in the offices of his brick home before moving below ground when they heard hail begin to strike. Five vehicles had just been placed in a large indoor arena. The arena and cars were all destroyed.

“We had a word of prayer and it was not long before we heard what sounded just like a freight train going by next door,” Orr related. “When we got out and looked in the front yard there were nine huge trees that were uprooted as close as 20 feet next to the house. In the back of the house an equipment building 30 x 126 feet had collapsed. There was not a shingle on the house that was disturbed. The cars in the arena survived the hail but not the tornado.”

While some of the damage was covered by insurance, the expense to rebuild has been aided significantly by donations that have filtered in from throughout the country. In mid-July, the farm’s operators signed a contract with construction crews to rebuild as much of the attraction as possible.

“This has been pretty tough,” an emotional Glenn Orr said weeks after the storm first hit. “We’ve had just wonderful support. We’ve had hundreds of people help us with the cleanup. To put a value on that it would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It’s very heartbreaking,” Orr said. “But we in fact have had some wonderful stories of people that have heard about it from all over. We are members of NAFDMA (North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association) and they have been good enough to put the word out.”

He said he was most touched by efforts such as those shown by Rebecca McArthur, NAFDMA member and owner of McArthur Farms in Bennettsville, S.C., an area that suffered from tornadoes that struck in 1984.

An effort to scoop ice cream to raise money for the Orr Family Farm cause grew into a fund-raising project by an elementary school in Bennettsville that, combined with ice cream sales at the McArthur farm, raised $3,000.

“It was so touching what that school did that it still gets to me that people that far away would help us out like she did,” Orr said. “There’s no way we can not rebuild. There’s just been such an outpouring of love from the community as well as everywhere.”

Orr said farm operations considering getting into agritainment endeavors have to recognize the business for what it can often become – and that doesn’t even include threats from Mother Nature.

“I would say it has to be a labor of love because it’s not necessarily a money-making thing,” he said. “We’ve been at it for 10 years and last year we finally almost broke even.”

For more information on the Orr Family Farm, including how to donate to the rebuilding effort, click here.

Gary Pullano

Current Issue

see all current issue »

Be sure to check out our other specialty agriculture brands

produceprocessingsm Organic Grower