Organic farm brings success to a Texas work college

Nine years ago, Paul Quinn College, a college on the south side of Dallas, TX, was financially struggling. Its graduation rate was a dismal one percent. Michael Sorrell, the new college president, decided it was time to make some big changes.

The first step was to disband the losing football program. This opened up the field to a program that could bring in revenue and opportunity: an organic farm. The effort began with establishing raised beds in 2010. In 2012, the college produced its first crops raised organically on the field after receiving major funding from the Dallas Real Estate Council and private donors.

Sorrell also instituted a work study program for all students in return for reduced tuition, with some assigned to work on the farm.

“Eliminating the football program and changing our focus saved our school,” Sorrell says, adding that it changed the narrative of the institution. “We’re the first urban work college in the U.S. so our students learn what it takes to be effective in the workplace. And the farm has turned out to be a major part of that.”

Work program helps with tuition

The college’s students—440 this year—are assigned jobs on-campus the first two years. They work off-campus the last two years. In return for 150 hours per semester, each student receives $5,000 in tuition credit annually. Part is subsidized by the school but the farm revenues from the sale of produce also help subsidize the credit.

With over 80 percent of students Pell Grant eligible, making college affordable is a critical mission. The college has lowered the cost to around $14,000 a year, helped by moving to open sourced and online resources that eliminated textbooks.

Each semester 15 to 20 students are assigned to the farm. Farm Manager James Hunter emphasizes that the program is a student-run farm. “They do everything, make the crop plans, plant and harvest, deliver produce, and next year they will set up and run a farmers’ market,” says Hunter.

Students also learn how to read financial documents and do balance sheets, and through the planting and harvesting schedule, they learn the concept of supply and demand.

The farm’s official name is Paul Quinn College—We Over Me Farm.

“We Over Me is our institutional ethos, which values the progress of the community over the achievements of the individual, and we try to incorporate that into the daily operations of the farm,” Hunter explains.

Diversified market garden farm

The farm is not currently certified organic, but adheres to all National Organic Program standards. Hunter says the college operation is beginning the Texas Department of Agriculture organic application process in the coming year.

Over the six years, the farm has grown 45,000 pounds of produce, with 20,000 pounds the goal in 2017. “We have a highly diversified market garden farm—brassicas, kale, collards, turnips and radishes are our biggest crops now, and summer squash and okra in the summer,” says Hunter, adding the operation grows 40 to 50 different crops at all times. The farm also has a flock of laying hens, as well as bee colonies, and aquaponics systems to raise tilapia and basil.

Customers include Legends Hospitality at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, Legends Hospitality at Toyota Stadium, and high-end restaurants around Dallas. Future plans include expanding production by adding seasonal high tunnels and production greenhouses, and more acreage on an area adjacent to the farm.

Community service key

Located in an under-served urban area with no grocery stores within four miles, community service is another important mission of the college. A minimum of 10 percent of produce is donated to the community through a partnership with the North Texas Food Bank (NTFB). Mt. Tabor Church, which runs a food pantry directly across from campus, receives a bulk of the farm’s produce donations.

In 2015, over 3,000 pounds of produce were donated to NTFB. In 2016, 15 percent of produce was donated back to the community. In 2017, it plans to further increase food access in the local community, including a weekly farmers’ market.

Future careers in organic  

The school’s graduation rate has been trending up, growing 10 percent in 2016 compared to 2015. And several current students and employees are considering organic careers after exposure to organic farming.

One former student and the farm’s Lead Farm Hand recently became a certified Master Gardener, and is pursuing a Master's degree in Holistic Medicine where she plans to grow organic herbs for wholesale and use in her practice. Another student team ropes on the Amateur rodeo circuit, and is pursuing a career in organic agriculture, with a focus on livestock and small-scale diversified vegetable production.

Hunter said the farm’s greatest challenge is also the most rewarding—having a staff of novice student employees each semester.

“Each season, we train a new group of students, and as such suffer the consequences of this steep learning curve. This semester we lost a couple rows of carrots, which were accidentally misidentified as weeds. This allows every opportunity for a teaching moment, which allows all of us to learn and grow,” says Hunter.   //