Down on the farm

Inheritance brings promise, problems to Corning high school

Photo by Tom Angel

Grab them udders: According to the American Association of Agricultural Education, ag programs that provide hands-on experience help students score better in not just ag classes, but in other subjects such as math and science as well.

Almost every day, a new revelation is voiced about how California schools are crowded, underfunded and falling apart. So when a small, rural high school is about to receive a windfall worth more than $40 million, people tend to get excited about it. But when the money starts rolling in, watch out, said Corning Union High School District Superintendent Mike Henry—not even an inheritance comes without its pitfalls.

Henry ought to know. Last winter, Corning Union High was the recipient of a dying man’s generous gift, a 175-acre farm and a stock portfolio worth more than $3.5 million. Daniel D. Rodgers, a former Corning resident who left town as a young man to make a fortune in the stock market, bequeathed the gift. Having no wife or children to leave his estate to, he left his Corning farm and cattle ranch, as well as a generous stock portfolio, to the school district. His intent was for the farm to be used as an educational tool for agriculture students and for some of the interest earned from the stocks to be given out yearly in the form of scholarships.

When Henry received the news he was stunned and elated at the same time.

“I came to work one day and got a call from a lawyer,” Henry said. “He said, ‘By the way, the school has been left 175 acres and $3.5 million.’ It was a very pleasant surprise.”

But, as the surprise wore off and reality set in, it soon became obvious that the gift carried along with it a series of challenges and responsibilities that the district has never reckoned with before, such as planning and managing a major ag project while trying to navigate a thicket of red tape.

There is no question that the gift will be a boon to the school of 850 students, which already has a popular and well-established agriculture program. The money for this year’s scholarships, about $100,000, has already been appropriated and will be given out to 25 students at the end of the school year. For a small-town high school in an economically disadvantaged city like Corning, the scholarships can be a huge incentive for kids without a lot of money to work toward attending college.

“This project has wonderful potential,” said Corning Union High agriculture instructor Doug Oilar, whose million-dollar proposal for the farm school—based on the one used by Chico State University students—nearly made the district trustees “fall out of their chairs.”

“This could give a very diversified, hands-on experience in the science of agriculture,” he said. “It’s just frustrating that every time you get through one set of hurdles someone sets up another roadblock.”

Oilar said he would like to see the project get going so his present students wouldn’t miss their chance to work on the farm. But before any projects can begin, the school has to sort through several problems regarding how it can use the gifted money. One is that some of the stocks in Rodgers’ portfolio are uninsured and therefore illegal for the school to own. The rationale behind the law forbidding school ownership of uninsured stocks comes from a situation in which an Orange County school district went bankrupt when its mostly uninsured portfolio collapsed.

The district has been working on converting the stocks into other investments that it hopes will provide a decent return without sacrificing fiscal security.

“Most of the stocks are OK, and we can keep them until they mature,” Henry said. “We’re very close to having the [other] assets converted.”

But once the money is clear of legal trouble, there is still the question of exactly what to do with it. According to the will, a percentage of the money must be used to maintain and improve the farm for use as an agricultural learning facility. What that facility will look like has become a hot topic at the district’s monthly meetings.

Jim Gannon, a farmer and former ag teacher with land adjacent to the Rodgers estate, said he felt the need to get involved in the project because it seemed to him that the school district hadn’t put enough thought into planning the site.

“Their focus is on Future Farmers of America animal projects, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I was in FFA when I was in school,” he said. “But they need to slow down and do a master plan. I’ve talked to some federal people, some state people, and they all think this could be a model farm school for the whole state if it’s done right. But if it’s not…”

Gannon said he wants his own daughters, who are nearing high school age, to be able to study at a world-class farming school, and he worries that, without an agriculturally diverse and well-thought-out plan, the district could end up squandering a golden opportunity.

Superintendent Henry said he appreciates the neighbors’ participation and is working to make sure a wide array of projects is available at the farm site.

“We’re looking at doing a variety of things,” he said. “One group wants to do organic farming. The creek on the property has erosion problems, and one group would like to work on that.”

Other probable uses for the farm include instruction facilities for livestock handling, irrigation management, orchard tending and land conservation.

Lupe Green, executive director of the Red Bluff-based Sacramento River Discovery Center, said the farm’s potential as a teaching tool is almost unlimited.

“Children actively learn when they’re in that environment,” she said. “There are so many possibilities.”

Green said the center, a nonprofit organization that runs environmental and agricultural learning programs throughout the Northstate, will present a list of ideas for the Corning farm school at the next district meeting. She said the center has offered to share with the district its extensive list of experts and contacts in the fields of education, agriculture and conservation science.

Henry, who now must find a way to accommodate the various perspectives on what should be done with the property, said that whatever happens Rodgers’ gift is much appreciated and will be put to good use.

“Inheritance has broken up even the best of families," he said. "I don’t think that will happen here. There are problems that go along with it, but they’re good problems."