School turns football field into farm

DALLAS -- Of the rolling 146 acres that Paul Quinn College calls home, the spot that belongs to the aging football field is impossible to miss. Set in a subtle valley on the northeast corner of campus, the field is everything you might expect at a tiny NAIA school. Bright white goalposts. A fading, antiquated scoreboard. A yellow and purple shack where fans can purchase tickets. And, tucked behind one end zone, a pair of navy blue blocking sleds for training.

On this fall afternoon, there will be no football practice. No whistles, no tackling drills, no sprints. That's because there is no team that calls this place home. At least not a football team. Instead, the 20-yard line is occupied by bulging sweet potatoes. Radishes sprout on the opposite end of the field, somewhere around the 15. A few feet from the old ticket booth, hens gather to lay eggs. On the home sideline, where shiny metal bleachers once stood, fresh tilapia swim back and forth in a state-of-the-art aquaponics system.

It was seven years ago when college President Michael Sorrell, a former college basketball player, decided to kill Paul Quinn's cash-strapped football program. Two years later, he transformed the old field into an organic farm. Yes, people said he was insane; his plan was sure to fail. And yet this Thanksgiving, when the Dallas Cowboys host the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium, the big-money high rollers in the stadium's suites will eat pasta drizzled with pesto rooted in Paul Quinn basil. They'll dip chips into roasted red pepper salsa made from Paul Quinn peppers. And they'll nibble from veggie trays covered in radishes and beets that grew right there on Paul Quinn's 15-yard line.

"You know the Apple commercial 'Here's to the crazy ones?'" Sorrell says. "Well, that's us. We're proud to be the crazy ones. We weren't supposed to make it. No one thought this would work. But here we are. And I'm telling you, we think -- no, we know -- this is only the beginning. We are going to change the world with this farm."

TO UNDERSTAND WHY this all began, you have to visit the 95 percent minority, poverty-stricken neighborhood that surrounds Paul Quinn. Eight miles south of downtown Dallas, the area is a federally recognized food desert, meaning there are no grocery stories or restaurants where fresh, nutritious food can be easily obtained for those without cars. Sorrell realized this firsthand when he took the president's job at Paul Quinn in fall 2007. By spring, he had gained 15 pounds, thanks to lunch and dinner options that were limited to chicken shacks, convenience stores and fast food. The healthiest choice was Subway, three miles down the road.

Sorrell was determined to make a change. He began talking with community leaders in the hope of getting a grocery store on or near campus. No one was interested. He offered free land. Still, no one was interested. The words of his final prospective owner stung.

"He said to a friend of mine that the people in this neighborhood don't look like his clients," Sorrell says. "And I just got furious at the injustice of it all. In the back of my mind, I may have thought that. But to hear someone say it, to have someone tell you that, basically, poor, black and brown people don't deserve what you provide … I was livid."

That's when Sorrell had the idea to turn the field into a farm. He had scrapped the football program two years earlier, saving the university roughly $600,000 a year. Alumni of the program howled, but when Sorrell challenged them to raise $2 million to save football, he says, no one raised a dime.

"That showed me folks could be loud but that didn't mean the support was deep," Sorrell says. "And I don't believe you build old man's dreams on young man's backs."

At a luncheon with a local entrepreneur who had been interested in community gardens, Sorrell suggested investing in the idea of farming on the field. The man said yes. Sorrell went to his board, insisting he had found the idea that was going to save the cash-strapped school, which had lost its accreditation a year earlier amid financial and academic concerns.

"They said, 'It's going to make that much money?'" Sorrell recalls. "I said, 'No, it's going to serve notice as to who we are going to be. A voice for those without voices and hope for the hopeless. And if no one else wants to stand up for what's right, we will."

Sorrell asked one of his more open-minded employees, Elizabeth Wattley, to run the farm. Her farming experience consisted of, well, nothing.

"I started reading books and Googling," Wattley said.

Gradually, the farm had success. Through fundraising and a partnership with PepsiCo and its Food for Good initiative, a few training beds turned into the entire field. Students worked on the field as part of a work-study program that decreased their tuition. The farm became a cornerstone of the school's required social entrepreneurship program, which teaches students to become leaders and generate wealth through breaking the cycle of poverty and giving back to the community. And at minimum, 10 percent of the farm's yield went back to the community it called home.

Eventually, outsiders started taking notice -- for the good and bad. Other local farmers criticized Paul Quinn for not aerating the field properly and for delivering food in a Ziploc bag.

"We didn't know what we were doing," Wattley said. "We had no farm cred. One farmer wrote a blog complaining that we were digging into his business because people wanted to help the poor little black kids. On the other side were those who suggested this was akin to slavery.

Sorrell found those charges eye-opening.

"There was this argument that we sent our kid to college to get them out of the fields," Sorrell said. "My response was, 'Yeah, genius, but not the fields that they own.' That showed me how lost and disenfranchised people had become. To think that it would take you back to that place. It showed me that I couldn't make any assumptions. We had to teach what this farm was all about."

GROWING UP IN the neighborhood around Paul Quinn, Chanson Goodson would see the posters of the football team in convenience stores and always ask about the next game. But there was no game. And no team. The posters were instead full of memories. When Goodson walked around town, he would see kids covered in dirt and wonder what that was all about. He heard whispers about the farm, but not until he became a student at Paul Quinn and took a work-study job at the farm for $10 an hour did he see it firsthand. Initially, he was unimpressed.

"It was a job," he says. "Just a regular job. I would just go there and try to knock it out. I didn't want to touch dirt. I didn't want no bugs. If it was too cold, I didn't want to work. If it was too hot, I didn't want to work. It was a paycheck."

But then something happened. Goodson starting planting vegetables, watering them, taking care of them and watching them grow. He started to show up for work early. Leave late. And take pride in the planting he had done. He pushed others to do the same.

"I became absorbed in it," he said. "It became more of a responsibility than a job."

Now he's at the farm any chance he can get. He tries to educate his friends and family about the importance of healthy eating and making the right choices at the grocery store. And he is studying for a career in agricultural law.

"I want as many people to know about the opportunities that are available to them," he said. "There is more out there than chicken shacks and Skittles. Arugula is good. It's OK to eat a beet once in a while."

Goodson's story is the norm. Wattley and Hannah Koski, the new farm manager, see the same transition every semester. The kids who don't want to be there, Koski lets their crops die. Others succeed. And it becomes an addictive competition. Wattley recalls one day when a former football player who had no interest in the farm was suddenly chasing visitors asking them to taste his arugula.

"They're taking potatoes in the dorm. I've heard students in the dorm defending their tomatoes," Wattley says.

Sorrell believes it all comes back to a simple premise: the human desire to achieve.

"When you are used to losing, winning seems a million miles away," Sorrell says. "What the farm does is, when you plant something, it grows. It's a simple and tangible example of your success. And you can't beat that."

Since its creation in March 2010, the farm has been renamed the "WE Over Me" farm. It has produced more than 50 varieties of vegetables totaling more than 30,000 pounds of produce. It now includes a chicken coop, four active beehives and a greenhouse that houses an aquaponics system to raise tilapia. The farm sells directly to local restaurants and grocery stores as well as at farmer's markets.

The farm's success has helped Paul Quinn restore its accreditation and build new partnerships with Yale, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania. The school has been named an HBCU of the Year. And Sorrell the HBCU President of the Year.

"The farm saved this school," Sorrell says. "It changed the narrative."

IN 2011, Wattley was watching the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game when she nearly lost her mind. During a break in the action, cameras showed owner Jerry Jones looking down from his private suite as his Cowboys were beating the Miami Dolphins. He was nibbling on a radish.

"That was our radish," Wattley said. "I'm sure that was the radish we harvested."

Four years earlier, George Wasai -- a football player in the 1980s at Bishop College, which used to occupy the campus where Paul Quinn is now -- was among those fighting to keep the PQC football program alive. He had played on that field and didn't want to see the last tie to his playing days die. But when Sorrell turned the field into a farm, Wasai had an idea. He was the food and beverage director for the hospitality division of Legends, at the old Texas Stadium and at the newly constructed AT&T Stadium. Wasai mentioned the farm to one of his executive chefs, and a partnership was established.

Now, an entire section of the farm is dedicated to the Cowboys. The team is Paul Quinn's largest client. Each year, Koski and Legends chefs work together to determine what high-value crops the stadium could use that will also help maximize the farm's revenue.

"You just don't get a client like that," Koski said.

A couple of times a year, Legends employees will visit the farm and work with the students to help plant and pick. And, when it's harvest time, Koski will load her Subaru with crops and she and her students will hand-deliver them right into AT&T Stadium.

"The greatest irony through all of this is that we've sent more tomatoes to the NFL than we ever would have football players," Sorrell says.

The only challenge of working with the Cowboys is that they constantly want more. Executive chef Orazio La Manna says the We Over Me farm provides less than 5 percent of the vegetables the stadium uses in a season. But its imprint is everywhere.

"I would take up their entire farm if they let me" La Manna says. "I know that's not the purpose, but their product is that good. It's better than anything else we get. Without question. I'm constantly asking what we can do to get more."

The answer is a tractor. Each year, Sorrell says the farm makes about $120,000 to $130,000 through fundraising, donations and the sales of its crops. After student and staff salaries, supplies and maintenance, he says, the farm breaks about even. A tractor would allow the farm to expand to an adjacent 4-5 acres and increase its impact.

"I'm hoping we can raise the money," Koski says.

IF THERE'S ONE thing that stands out during a visit to the farm, it's that the reminders of football are still standing. Sure, paint is chipping away on the scoreboard, the blocking sleds are swallowed in bees and the light standards look a touch crooked. But it's a reminder of what once was. And what could be. With just a little crazy thinking.

Sorrell laughs when he hears people suggest that the farm is the endgame. The school just wrote a grant for an educational center at the farm that will double as a restaurant. There, classes will be held on cooking, preparing and healthy eating. Next semester, the farm will be broken down into micro farms that will be independently managed and run by teams of students, furthering the entrepreneurial spirit of the school. Sorrell is still planning for his on-campus grocery store. A food distribution network. And there are plans to share the Paul Quinn model with other small universities in challenged communities, all with the goal of eliminating food deserts.

"I don't think you should forget where you came from," Sorrell says. "I don't want people to lose sight that this was once a football field. That should give our students a message of resiliency, grit and determination. Whether it's football or farming, the messages are all the same. We've just tried to show more than one way to communicate them."