Last summer, Maplewood Academy started selling produce from its gardens to the community, and it was a hit! God has poured out blessing after blessing with this new industry—creating student jobs, a better way to reach the community, and excellent educational opportunities.

The idea started as just a seed, but began to flourish when Terry Nennich, Maplewood’s vice principal of finance, arrived in the summer of 2014. Nennich comes from a family of farmers, and this program is definitely a passion of his.

“When I came, Maplewood had talked about starting a horticulture program for students to learn and provide jobs so students could earn money toward their tuition,” he said. “It’s a great thing for the school and students. I am very excited about this opportunity and I really enjoy doing it. There are a lot of benefits for all involved.”

In 2015, Maplewood students, under Nennich’s direction, set out two acres of strawberry plants just north of the school. They also planted about an acre of other vegetables, including sweet corn and tomatoes, in fields behind the girls’ dormitory. Students started taking vegetables to the local farmers’ market that summer. They did well, but had no idea how the addition of strawberries would cause the program to bloom the next summer.

“This past spring, a nasty relapse of winter air was forecasted, and we feared the survival of our strawberry plants,” said Nennich. “The faculty came together and prayed for God’s protection. The following week, our hearts sank when the freeze seemed to devastate much of the two acres we planted the summer before. But God teaches us lessons in the hard times, and much to our amazement, the strawberries came back strong and flourished past our imagination!”

In June 2016, Maplewood opened a you-pick strawberry patch and a farm stand out front on one of the main roads through town. The community responded with lines of cars, full of people wanting a taste of the ruby-red strawberries. Thanks to word of mouth, the staff couldn’t keep up with the demand at the farmers’ market. A full truck load of strawberries would be cleared out in 20 minutes. Maplewood was suddenly the talk of the town.
In just a few short weeks, Maplewood’s strawberry farm brought in almost $40,000. One hundred percent of the proceeds from farm produce goes toward student scholarships.

Additionally, the program provides rich learning experiences for the students. Last year Nennich taught a horticulture class educating students how to nurture new plants from seeds and then transplant them to the gardens in the spring. Last spring students added three acres of sweet corn, 2,000 tomato plants, a half-acre of watermelon and cantaloupe, a quarter acre of potatoes, and an additional 2,500 plants of other varieties. This is in addition to adding one-and-a half more acres of strawberries to the already successful two acres harvested last summer. In June of 2017, Maplewood will have a total of three-and-a-half acres of strawberries to harvest, and the staff hope to expand the gardens further if all goes well.

More than 20 students were hired during the strawberry season, then spent their summer picking, weeding, selling produce at the farmers’ market, and running the farm stand at the school. Sophomore Hannah Dow said, “I was one of the student workers in the strawberry field, and I had several awesome experiences. On one occasion, I was walking a member of the public out to the field so that he could pick his own strawberries. On the way out, he asked me about what Seventh-day Adventists believe. It opened up the opportunity for me to share my faith!” And there are many more stories like this one.

As Maplewood looks ahead, God is opening more doors. Several donors have stepped up to provide funds for purchasing a used tractor, additional machinery, a greenhouse, two high tunnels, about 150 apple trees and about 600 raspberry plants. Current plans for the summer include growth of the strawberries, doubling the vegetables acreage and offering a Community Supported Agriculture program where customers purchase a “share” of produce for the summer, which entitles them to a weekly box of fresh produce harvested by the students throughout the summer.

Laura Cummings is the registrar for Maplewood Academy.