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On a rural route

City dwellers are leaving the rat race behind to buy small-scale hobby farms.

March 25, 2007|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

AS a full-time sales rep for national van-line companies for 12 years, Ellen Sullivan understood radical moves. One day she decided to make one herself.

Sullivan and her chemist husband, Paul Bernhardy, sold their Orange County home in Monarch Beach -- they were empty-nesters -- and bought a spread in San Diego County's rural Valley Center. That's when they added a new line on their resumes: hobby farmers.

No, they don't hoe the back 40 -- their farm is only 9 acres -- nor do they milk cows or harvest wheat. But they do raise sheep and grow lavender, the sweet-smelling Mediterranean shrub that's been cultivated for more than 2,000 years. They extract the oil, which goes into the dozens of products Sullivan sells online and to customers who flock to the farm each May and June.

The job's not easy, though.

"It's dusty work, you're dirty, and you have to be unafraid of snakes, spiders and rats," said Sullivan, 57. Bernhardy, 58, still works full time for a major food corporation. Until they purchased the farm, which includes a four-bedroom house, a 1,000-square-foot weaving studio, animal sheds, a wool shed and gift shop, Sullivan had never gardened before. "You don't get rich doing this, but it's a satisfying lifestyle."

It must be, because plenty of boomers and Gen-Xers nationwide are getting dirt under their fingernails. "Lifestyle" farms now make up about half of the 2.1 million U.S. farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they are increasing by about 2% a year.

Hobby farmers -- loosely defined as those whose incomes are derived not solely from farming -- often bring little or no hands-on experience to their new avocation. Their business acumen and marketing skills from previous jobs, however, can turn their pastimes into gainful enterprises, said Karen K. Acevedo, editor in chief of 6-year-old Hobby Farms magazine, which has a circulation of about 81,000.

These "ruralpolitans" are willing to invest beaucoup bucks to pay for equipment to reap and sow organic vegetables; raise niche crops, such as herbs, grass-fed beef or organic pork; shear sheep or llamas for wool production; or harvest grapes for wine.

"Farming is not leisure-oriented, it's for people who are ambitious and perseverant, who are accomplishment-driven," said Acevedo, 36, who owns a 3-acre farm in Kentucky on which she grows summer garden crops and raises goats. "It attracts people from all over who are drawn to it for the various benefits."

Some hobby farmers embrace the rural life because they love gardening, and others simply want a quieter, simpler lifestyle, with the whole family engaging in something meaningful together. Some city dwellers took up farming following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Acevedo said, seeking more time with their children and the feeling of safety the countryside provides.


The good earth

"Our society has become so disconnected from the natural world that we develop a desperate longing to reconnect in that way," said Michael Ableman, a farmer and author of the book "On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm." "The resurgence in interest in small farming is in response to that."

Lavender grower Sullivan knew exactly why she wanted a farm: a steady supply of wool for her weaving. The longtime artist -- she was a weaver in residence at the Mission San Juan Capistrano for three years before she established the Lavender Fields, as the farm is known -- said she always dreamed of growing her own organic wool.

And, when she and Bernhardy bought their farm in 1998, "lavender was the herb of the year," Sullivan said. So they decided to plant it to produce some income for the property's upkeep. It wasn't long before they had 3,000 starter plants.

For the first five years, Sullivan got up at dawn daily to feed the sheep, clean their pens and prune and fertilize the plants. She now has one full-time helper to do many of those chores. She spends most of her time manufacturing the oils, lotions, soaps, body mist, candles, sachets and other products that she sells online and in the property's gift shop. The weaver also sells her knitted products and yarn.

Bernhardy drives the tractor, distills the lavender oil and helps Sullivan with her product shows. Annual sales are about $200,000, which help defray the costs of running the farm.

"Some people have a romantic idea about farming, but we live far away from town and deal with many inconveniences," Sullivan said. "Still, dealing with animals and being alert to the environment have been the most exciting and interesting parts of owning this place."

And then there are the llama lovers.

Nanci and Ken Sutton always enjoyed hanging out with their menagerie of animals on the 1-acre property they owned in the San Gabriel Valley town of Glendora. A plumber for 30 years, Ken, 58 and now retired, made service calls and ran a plumbing-supplies business. Nanci, 52, is an accomplished weaver who runs an embroidery business. Both grew up around animals.

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