A run-down high school farm that became a dumping ground on the outskirts of Thermal, Calif., is being resurrected through the efforts of local farmers, businesses, and an alum credited with sparking the effort.
Coachella Valley High School's 178 agriculture students, and those to follow, will be the benefactors of a coordinated community effort spearheaded by Margit Chiriaco-Rusche, a long-time agricultural advocate and community leader who graduated from CVHS more than 50 years ago.
Donations from Prime Time, Growing Coachella Valley, California Women in Agriculture, Joseph L. Chiriaco Inc., Macario Tree Service, Grimmway Farms, Hydro Ag Systems, North Shore Greenhouses, Wilbur-Ellis, and RDO Equipment included the labor to remove mountains of trash and tumble weeds that had collected on the farm. Along the way, land grading, financial assistance, irrigation equipment, a new greenhouse roof, and help planting sweet corn and green beans was provided by those involved.
The labor of love from community members didn't just resurrect a neglected school farm. It ignited a spark with students and agricultural staff on campus to continue with efforts that Luis Valentino, superintendent, Coachella Valley Unified School District, says may include future donations.
"It's important to me that we don't lose the traction and motivation that got us to this point," Valentino said during a dedication dinner of the rebuilt greenhouse and farm.
The sweet corn crop, planted by Prime Time, gave students an opportunity for an entrepreneurial project, according to FFA Chapter President Hector Romero.
'I see great potential'
Romero's family owns and operates a date palm ranch near the high school. Romero graduates this year and plans to attend college, where he intends to study animal science. He has multiple offers from universities but has not decided where he will attend.
"I see great potential with the future of this program," Romero said. "I've been involved since my sophomore year; I'm looking forward to the potential and what's to come."
Kevin Sleeper has taught at CVHS for 20 years. The last five of those he's spent in the ag department. He is encouraged by the increased attention to the school farm by campus leadership and community members.
"There was a lot of neglect out here," he said. "When I got here the program was declining and there was a need to have it reinvigorated."
Those efforts began with hiring additional staff for the ag program over the past several years, he said. Then the pandemic hit, and nobody was on campus. The trash piles from illegal dumping continued to grow.
"This has been a tremendous community effort," said Marie Perotti, career technical education coordinator for Coachella Valley Unified School District.
Coachella Valley grower George Tudor, owner of Tudor Ranch and board chairman for Growing Coachella Valley, says the efforts are necessary to sustain agriculture in the region.
"If we don't have young people coming into agriculture, then we don't have agriculture in the valley," Tudor said.