The sun was just peeking over the horizon as Kayla Randolph left home and headed to school. Once reaching campus, she quickly walked the eighth of a mile to the academy farm, the side-road gravel crunching beneath her feet. I can’t be late! she thought. They’ll be waiting for me. “They” referred to the 200 chickens that supply eggs for the school cafeteria, as well as compost for the greenhouse plants. It’s Kayla’s job to feed them each morning, a responsibility she takes seriously as well as enjoys.
She ran the last few feet to the tool shed and clocked in. After taking care of the chickens, she joined the other student workers, who already had grabbed trowels and hoes and were heading toward the greenhouses.
“We’re going to have a good harvest this year; I’m sure of it,” said Larry Overton, Sunnydale Academy farm manager, when Kayla arrived. Kayla silently agreed, and thanked God again for providing her with this job. The greenhouse industry is new on campus, and even though the work is hard, Kayla, a sophomore at the school, loves being out in the fresh air tending the plants and watching them grow. But even more important, the industry provides the financial means for her to attend the academy, and for that, both she—and her parents—are deeply grateful.
Sunnydale Adventist Academy traditionally has boasted a strong work program for its students. In 2009, however, with an enrollment increase of 40 percent during the previous five years, the need to add to the current industry base so more students could earn tuition money was pressing. After some discussion, the school board appointed a seven-member focus group to brainstorm and do feasibility studies. The committee consisted of two conference leaders, two school administrators, two businessmen, and the current industry manager. After a number of meetings and extensive research, one idea kept floating to the top—high-tunnel greenhouses.
“Fourteen- and 15-year-olds are legally allowed to work in agriculture in Missouri, so this would open up an employment opportunity for our younger students,” one person said during the group’s October meeting.
“Some young people love working outdoors,” another added. “It’s a physical outlet for them, a change from all the hours they spend sitting in class and studying.”
The idea took root, and all seven members present—and later the full school board—voted unanimously to focus on the viability of starting up a greenhouse industry. The biggest problem, though, was the money.
Research indicated that $30,000 was needed to purchase three high-quality, 30' x 96' greenhouses and pay the irrigation, setup, equipment, and operational costs for the first year. The committee wondered where it was going to find the funds to finance the project. Finally, one person spoke up: “I’ll try to raise the money.” All eyes turned toward Iowa-Missouri Conference president T. Dean Coridan, who soon questioned the wisdom of his offer. What have I gotten myself into?
Making a List
That evening after the meeting Coridan prayed and asked the Lord for guidance. He then wrote on a piece of paper the names of four individuals who might be willing to donate to the project. Before he had the opportunity to call any of them, however, they began to contact him.
The following morning a man phoned Coridan and offered to make a large donation toward the greenhouse project. That person was the first of the four people named on Coridan’s list. The first doner then shared information about the new academy industry proposal with another church member, who also chose to make a donation. This person was number two on the list. The second donor then talked with a third person, and he too donated to the project. The third donor was the third person Coridan had listed.
“By that time I had no doubt that the Lord was in this,” Coridan said. “It was amazing to see God at work.”
The $30,000 goal had not yet been reached by camp meeting time, so Coridan shared the fund-raising story with the congregation there and added, “I’m sure that the fourth person on my list is here, and that they’re feeling impressed to give the rest of the money to meet our goal.” By the end of camp meeting, the fourth donor had slipped the remaining money Coridan needed, in cash, into his pocket.
“I can only praise God,” Coridan says.
The school purchased and began constructing the greenhouses in January 2010. The type of structures they acquired are known as high tunnels, which usually are heated only by the sun (to keep down operating costs), and workers generally plant in the ground rather than in flats or baskets on raised platforms. The sides can be lowered or raised for ventilation and temperature control. Starting construction in mid-winter, however, had a drawback.
Rewarding Results: Farm manager Larry Overton and sophomore Rachel Greenwood work together picking an early harvest of mixed salad greens.
“We had about six inches of snow, and the ground was frozen,” said Larry Overton, general manager of Sunnydale Industries and Farms. “We wanted to bring in good topsoil, but we were waiting for the weather to be right. Finally the snow went away and the ground dried out. We prepared the soil and eventually got some plants into the ground. That first spring we planted all three high tunnels full of tomatoes.”
Although Overton describes the experience as having a “huge learning curve,” he claims success even for the first harvest.
“We had some really good crops, and ended up getting very good customers,” he says.
One of the first customers was the local Hy Vee grocery store, whose produce manager was excited about a Christian school and its students being involved in an agricultural enterprise. A chain grocery store in Columbia, Missouri, was the next to come on board.
“We sold to them almost exclusively last year [summer of 2011], and almost everything that we grew,” Overton says.
A Tomato Problem
During the school’s second agricultural season, Overton and the eight students working in the greenhouses decided to include grape tomatoes as part of their produce. They sold many of the grape tomatoes to Hy Vee. One day the store’s produce manager called and left Larry a message: “We have a problem with the tomatoes.”
“I said to myself, ‘Oh no, what’s wrong with the tomatoes?’ I just didn’t know what the problem could be,” Overton says.
When he called the produce manager back, she explained, “Your tomatoes taste so good that our employees buy them all up and pack them out of the store before they even make it to the produce display area!”
Overton breathed a sigh of relief. This is a good problem to have
, he thought.
“Our tomatoes are very, very good tasting—and getting better,” Overton says. “We’re learning what we’re doing. There are so many variables with the soil and fertilization, how much to water, which varieties to grow—just so many different things.
“Last summer we increased our production. In fact, in one week we picked 1,600 pounds of tomatoes; we never saw that the year before. And we had fewer tomato plants than the previous year, so our yields are increasing. We’re learning how to take care of the plants, what varieties our customers like, what our customers want to purchase. We’re also continuing to find new customers who want our product. Every week we learn something new,” he says.
Sunnydale Farms is adding to its variety of produce. Along with tomatoes, they now grow strawberries, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupes, onions, and pumpkins, among other produce. They also are constructing and selling high tunnels.
What Do the Students Think?
Sophomore Rachel Greenwood, a village student, has been working with the greenhouse program since its inception. Her job includes planting, weeding, picking produce, and delivering produce to buyers. She says she enjoys her work, but sometimes struggles with Missouri’s weather extremes.
“In the winter it’s really cold, and in the summer it’s really hot,” she says. She also explains that “freshmen and juniors work in the afternoon and go to classes in the morning, [while] sophomores and seniors work in the morning, and attend classes in the afternoon.”
Sunnydale junior Benjamin Randolph also takes pleasure in his work on the school farm, but concedes that it’s not for everyone.
“The first job they had me do was shovel manure and sawdust off a trailer,” he says. “Then they took me to the greenhouse, where we used compost from the manure, sawdust, and other organic matter to get the soil ready for planting. But the part that I really love the most is tilling the ground and getting it ready for the plants. It’s fun.”
He adds, however, that the job entails “very hard work.”
The Bottom Line
The students who work on the farm aren’t doing it just to fill up spare time. This is how they earn money to defray their annual tuition fees: about $13,500 for dorm students, and $9,500 for those who live in the community. According to Sunnydale’s vice president for finance, Erv Bales, the greenhouse industry wages can cover a significant portion of school costs.
“If students work full-time for the industry throughout the summer—a 40-hour workweek—and part-time during the school year, they can earn about $7,000 toward their annual tuition,” Bales says. “And if they’re involved in evangelism, they can earn even more.”
Based on Iowa-Missouri Conference policy, the school also pays students for participating in evangelistic events—not a usual mode of earning tuition money. Students who preach for a three-week evangelistic series, either locally or overseas, earn $1,500. If they lead out in both a spring and a fall event, they will have an additional $3,000 scholarship applied to their student account. These scholarships are funded by a businessman who wants young people to be involved in evangelism and be enrolled in an Adventist school. Academy and conference administrators together plan an annual overseas mission trip, usually to India or Africa, so students who are interested have ample opportunity to serve the Lord and others in this way.
“We believe in a wholistic approach to Adventist education,” says school principal Gary Russell. “We strive to provide students with a balanced education, focused not only on high-quality academics—which, of course, are vitally important—but also on the physical and, most important, the spiritual. We want our students to meet Jesus here, and leave better prepared for higher education and a life of service to God and humanity. We also want them to be active in spreading the gospel message now, during their teen years.
“We do everything we can to find a way for any student who is willing to work hard and apply themselves to their studies to enroll at Sunnydale Adventist Academy. That’s the reason we’re here; that’s why we exist.”
About 120 students currently attend Sunnydale Adventist Academy. To learn more, go to www.sunnydale.org or call 573-682-2164.
Sandra Blackmer is features editor of
Adventist Review. This article was published April 12, 2012.