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July 10, 2014

Michael J. Sorrell
Michael  J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in
Dallas. He made a decision to sack the football team
and organize a farm.

Paul Quinn College Sacked Its Football Team and Is Scoring a Financial Touchdown with Its Farm

The farm provides produce in a food desert and fosters entrepreneurial skills in students, both long-term goals of the school’s president.

by Rosemary Eng and Frederick H. Lowe
Staff Writers, The NorthStar News & Analysis

Far more fame has come to Paul Quinn College from turning its football field into a two-acre farm in 2010 than it ever received for its football team.

This is because President Michael J. Sorrell, an attorney, took the radical step of turning a money-losing college football program into a profitable farm enterprise that sells agricultural products to the community, restaurants and the Dallas Cowboys.

Every semester, about 10 to 15 Paul Quinn College students are working on the farm to help pay for their education while others are learning first hand entrepreneurial skills like business planning, marketing, the market value of specific foods, food distribution and cash flow analysis, all learned from running a farm.  

The Farm Is Part of a Vision for Developing Entrepreneurial Skills
Paul Quinn College has formed a relationship with Babson College, one of the nation’s top-ranked schools for business and entrepreneurship, Sorrell told The NorthStar News & Analysis during an interview last February in Chicago.

During a January 2014 interview at the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, Sorrell said he wants to transform Paul Quinn College into a nationally elite school focused on entrepreneurship, innovation, academic rigor and servant leadership.

Time Runs Out On Football and a New Clock Starts with the Farm
Paul Quinn College’s agricultural endeavor, known locally as the “WE over Me Farm,” solved more problems than just getting rid of the $600,000 annual expense of supporting college football.  “The team was really terrible,” Sorrell said.

Instead of the outlay for football, the school is earning more than $10,000 annually from sales of produce alone, which covers basic operating costs like seeds, tools and fuel. Larger infrastructure items such as the greenhouse and irrigation system have been purchased through a variety of fundraising initiatives, including grants, individual support, and an annual fundraiser called “A Community Cooks.”

Located in a Food Desert, Paul Quinn College Sees a Business and a Teaching Opportunity
Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in south Dallas, is located in a food desert, federally defined as an urban neighborhood or rural town with poor access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. With 12,000 pounds of food produced last year and an expected harvest of about 18,000 pounds this year, Quinn is able to supply food from the farm to the local community. The school has plans to  open a grocery store next May. That would provide another job skills opportunity for students.

Paul Quinn College Farm
With football goal posts in the background, Paul Quinn College
Farm is scoring by selling fresh vegetables. The Dallas school
plans to open a store in May.
One of Paul Quinn College’s customers is the Dallas Cowboys, Sorrell told The NorthStar News & Analysis during a conference on black men at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

“America’s Team,” as the Cowboys are called by fans and sportscasters, play their home games in AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The school sells produce to Legends Hospitality, which is sold through concessions at AT&T Stadium.

Sorrell is the son of an entrepreneur. His father owned a barbecue restaurant in Chicago, and Sorrell thinks like an entrepreneur, which challenges some of the beliefs of the traditional civil rights community.

“Although the civil rights movement helped the African-American in many ways, the movement also shortchanged blacks by leading them to believe that what they had to offer was substandard compared to other racial and ethnic groups,”  he said during the conference at the University of Chicago. “If you are constantly asking some group to let you in, it leads you believe that what you have to offer is not good enough." Sorrell added that in order for blacks to reduce their high rate of unemployment they must create jobs.

The Farm Teaches the Community about Healthy Eating
The farm enterprise is teaching the local community about fresh, healthy foods. In food deserts where fast food is easier to come by than fresh produce, the farm is introducing local school kids and community residents to the foods people used to eat, like greens and fresh fruit. When people learn to cook and eat fresh foods, they tell their friends and the word spreads. If kids pick the foods themselves, 99 per cent of the time they are enthusiastic about eating it, said Hannah Koski, the farm’s manager.

After earning a master's degree in horticulture, with a focus on urban farming, Koski moved to Dallas when the call was put out for a farm manager. The 28-year-old from Massachusetts is a Vassar graduate who spent four years running a farm in Maine. She co-authored the Guide to Urban Farming in New York State, which can be viewed on Cornell University’s Northeast Beginning Farmers website.

Sorrell, who sat on the Paul Quinn College board of trustees, was named president in 2007 to help the small, struggling school. After the idea of a farm took hold, Sorrell, who has a law degree and a master's degree in public policy from Duke University,  got in touch with The Sustainable Food Project at Yale University which operates a small farm on its campus in Connecticut.

With Yale’s help, Sorrell led Quinn in the development of a campus organic farm, which is also used for educational purposes.

Sorrell can be seen on YouTube talking about his vision for Paul Quinn College and the farm.

Paul Quinn College is becoming increasingly farm oriented. The school has developed an orchard, bee hives, greenhouses, raised-bed farming and raises tilapia fish aquaponically. Biology and botany classes use the farm to teach soil biology, soil analysis and composting.

Onions at Paul Quinn College farm
Onions grown on Paul Quinn College's  farm
Paul Quinn College, founded in 1872 in Waco, changed locations several times. In its earliest days, the school taught skills like tanning, carpentry and blacksmithing. Now its concentrations are in business administration, education and legal studies.

The modern Paul Quinn College is a diverse school which the school's communications manager Ashley Daly says regards itself more as an institution for minorities rather than a traditional HBCU.

The National Center for Education Statistics shows in 2012 Paul Quinn College’s student population was 86 per cent African American, 11 per cent Hispanic, one per cent white, one per cent American Indian or native Alaskan, with the remainder of mixed race. The valedictorian this year was Latino.  

Paul Quinn College is Nationally Recognized
Although Paul Quinn College has a diverse student body compared to other HBCUs, Sorrell was named 2012 HBCU Male President of the Year. The school also has racked up other awards, including 2011 HBCU of the Year, 2012 HBCU Student Government Association of the Year and 2013 HBCU Business Program of the Year.

A good percentage of the 250 students come from out of state, from places like Detroit, Chicago, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. Tuition for the 2014-2015 school year is $23,850. The school offers grants and financial packages and the goal is for students to graduate debt free, said Daly.  

Paul Quinn College is not only a place for a diversity of students. It is also a place for a diversity of communities. With a strong volunteer program, school kids, church communities, corporations, and the area’s local residents pitch in to do farm work together.

Daly said there are “gleaning events,” like a call put out to volunteers that a bumper crop of cucumbers needs picking, and workshops on topics like worm composting, caring for farm animals and bees, and cooking demonstrations.

Visit the farm at www.weovermefarm.com.

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