Educating the public without breaking the bank
Incorporating community programs into your farm business doesn't have to be an overwhelming burden. Quiet Creek Herb Farm turned non-profit to make their educational dreams a reality.

By Maggie Fry-Manross

September 14, 2006: On any given day at Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School of Country Living (www.quietcreekherbfarm.com) in Brookville, Pennsylvania, the parking lot is filled with cars and school buses. Students and teachers can be found touring the high-tunnel greenhouses, baking bread, making cheese, learning to make compost with worms or searching for the newly hatched queen in an observation hive filled with bees.

Owners Claire and Rusty Orner moved back to their native northwestern Pennsylvania 11 years ago from Seattle, Washington, where they worked as sorority house parents while Claire was attending graduate school. Since that time, they have developed their expanding farm-based business to include two high-tunnel greenhouses and several gardens where they grow crops for a 16-member CSA and herbs, which are sold as transplants or grown out and used in the value-added products for sale in the on-farm gift shop.

But Quiet Creek’s most important enterprise is education. The Orners are dedicated to increasing public understanding of resource conservation, ecological awareness and healthful, sustainable living, and have done so by creating this farming experience through hard work, creativity and various tax credit and grant programs available to non-profit corporations.

Funding their educational dreams

In 2002, Quiet Creek became a non-profit corporation and is recognized as an educational improvement organization by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). This status means they can apply for various government grants and programs such as the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (www.panow.org) which allows local businesses to give money to the farm to fund educational activities in return for a tax credit of up to 75 percent of the contribution, with a maximum amount of $200,000 annually. If the business agrees to make the same contribution for two consecutive years, the tax credit could increase to 90 percent of the contribution, again with an annual limit of $200,000. Contributions to pre-kindergarten programs earn 100 percent tax credit.

EITC money goes toward five different programs at Quiet Creek for pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade public- and private-school students in Brockway, Brookville, Clarion, Clarion-Limestone, DuBois and Punxsutawney. The programs include:

Growing Naturally, a year-round pre-kindergarten program with an agricultural theme.

Sustainable Lifestyle Systems, intensive workshops for students of all ages on natural medicines, organic gardening, worm composting, integrated pest management, responsible shelter construction, herbal soap making, paper making, bee keeping, cheese making, nutrition, fitness and renewable energy.

The Naturalist-in-Residence Program, provides in-school instruction in the subjects listed above.

Work Experience Career Enhancement, helps ninth through twelfth graders learn about retail sales, food services management, landscape gardening, greenhouse vegetable production and the production of value-added farm products.

Environmental Encounters, week-long summer day camps for sixth through eighth graders addressing local environmental concerns.

Quiet Creek also runs week-long seminars for teachers interested in learning about organic farming and sustainable living techniques. This program has been funded in the past by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and is currently supported by Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t until they were granted non-profit status that the Orners were able to fully develop the programs, despite the importance of the educational component to them. The profits from the CSA and the gift shop help pay for some programming, but being a non-profit has allowed the Orners to find grants that more fully fund the farm’s educational programs without dipping into salaries. “We were stressed when both of us were working part or full time off the farm,” Claire said. “I’m the big-time planner and Rusty is the big-time doer, so it works. Having both of us here on the farm full time, plus our workers and volunteers, really helps.”

Becoming a non-profit

The first step to becoming a non-profit is to incorporate the farm. Part of this involves setting up a board of directors. The Orners are members of the board along with CSA members, long-time customers, professors from Clarion University and an accountant. “You don’t necessarily need an attorney on the board, but you definitely want a CPA,” Rusty said.

The board meets four times a year, including one meeting over the Internet. As long as members are involved and supportive of the farm, geography is not an issue. Distant board members just have to commit to commuting to the three organic dinner meetings Quiet Creek hosts.

After incorporation, the group can then apply for non-profit status. Once status is granted, the farmers submit a budget to the board of directors detailing how much money is needed to run the farm including salaries. Any profits earned beyond the budgeted amounts are available for educational programs. “If someone wanted to make a lot of money, this set up wouldn’t work for them," Rusty said. Being a non-profit helps with the educational programs and relieves some of the tax burden. Anything extra, instead of going to taxes, goes to programming.

Gaining non-profit status can be a long, frustrating and confusing process, but many of the farmers who have already been through it are happy to help others. “It took about a year and a half to get through the book work and the red tape,” Rusty said. “We were fortunate to have Louise Smith of Maysie’s Farm Conservation Center (www.maysiesfarm.org) to help us.” The Orners then turned around and helped another fellow farmer with his application and it took him six months less to get non-profit status than it took Quiet Creek. “Every time we do it, it gets faster,” Rusty said.

A good place to start looking for information on becoming a non-profit entity is www.irs.gov/charities. Programs for non-profit corporations and educational institutions differ from state to state, so you'll have to do a little research into what might be available in your area.

There is a lot of paper work involved in getting and maintaining non-profit status, but it’s worth it to farmers like the Orners. It can take some of the financial pressure off an already stressful situation and allow them to concentrate on what they really love to do: teach people about the beautiful world around them.