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Returning to Our Roots: Farm Director Couple Discuss Modern-Day Academy Agriculture

Philip and Mindi Wiygul in front of SVA farmlands

When I arrived to interview Philip and Mindi Wiygul at “Immanuel’s Ground,” the farm on Shenandoah Valley Academy’s campus, a family from Northern Virginia had just arrived to pick strawberries during the farm’s weekly market. “Welcome!” Philip said as he guided the family around the farm’s lush landscape and innumerable produce choices. He struck up a conversation with the family, learning they’re of Middle Eastern descent. At one time, Philip had been a science teacher in the Middle East, so his interest was piqued. Within a few minutes, a genuine connection had sprouted. When the family returned from their strawberry-picking adventure, they offered him some tasty leftover cultural food they had prepared. In return, Philip offered them a discount on their strawberries, and told them they could picnic on the hill behind the farm if they ever came back to the area. 

This is only one of many connections Philip Wiygul has been able to form with the surrounding community as manager of Immanuel’s Ground. Shenandoah Valley Academy (SVA), located in the small but stately town of New Market, Virginia, is nestled in the hills between the Massanuttan and Allegheny Mountains. It was founded in 1908 by a dying Charles Zirkle, who bequeathed a plot of land for the purpose of starting an Adventist boarding academy. As it grew, burgeoning with hundreds of students, a rich agricultural history sprouted. At one time, the academy had cattle and a large dairy, that school folklore remembers as the “best dairy in the state of Virginia.” Yet, in recent decades, agriculture at SVA and other Adventist academies has either diminished in stature or been plucked up and dissolved as the tension between labor and academics has strained students’ schedules. 

While farms have traditionally been seen as industry at academies—supporting the academies by giving employment to students and profit back into the school—Philip and Mindi Wiygul have different goals in mind, formed by a holistic view of agriculture education. They arrived at SVA two years ago to start a new agriculture program and expand a small farm operation. The farm sits on a rolling hill at the back of the academy’s sprawling 400-acre campus and continues to grow, supporting students, staff, and the surrounding community. Greenhouses sit at the base of the hill, and a wide variety of crops color the all-green cropland. After eating a luscious strawberry Mindi offered me, I interviewed Philip and Mindi about the farm, SVA’s agriculture program, and the philosophy behind it at the top of the farm’s hill, overlooking the farm and the rest of SVA’s campus. 

Shenandoah Valley Academy Farmlands

You have been running Immanuel’s Ground at Shenandoah Valley Academy for two years. What led both of you here, and how did this farm start?

Philip: Mindi and I both have embraced the life work of Christian education, and part of that is agricultural education. Previous experiences included my wife restarting the agriculture program at Southern Adventist University, which I helped with. Now we’re here.

Mindi: For me, I was teaching (among other things) world geography down at Southern, and I saw that I learned a lot more by teaching sustainability and the importance of sustainable agriculture. I also read in Ellen White’s writings how agriculture is the A, B, and C of education. When we were developing a major there, we wanted agriculture to be a part of it. And so that led us down this journey, at least for me.

What led you to SVA?

Mindi: We lived for four years in North Africa; we wanted to come to a place where we could still interact with international people. We came to Washington, D.C. and Philip ended up teaching for the Potomac Conference there. We had a small piece of land there—about an eighth of an acre—which was a huge blessing. But we realized we wanted to do this more, even full time. We contacted SVA about this, and then God just opened the doors.

What are you growing here? How big is this farm?

Philip: We have six-and-a-half acres fenced in, and we have an acre-and-a-half of strawberries planted. We have all kinds of vegetables growing. We’ve got sweet corn, sweet potatoes, all kinds of Brassicaceae family crops like cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, kale, cabbage—

Mindi: Beets.

Philip: Yep. We even have flowers. We are growing tomatoes and bell peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, and winter squash. We try to grow a large diversity of produce.

What do you find are the most important jobs that have to be done this time of year? It must be very busy.

Philip: At this time of year, we’re doing a lot of harvesting. This is when a lot of stuff is in season for eating. We have strawberries in right now. Tomatoes are coming in two weeks. The sweet corn is coming in three weeks. The flowers are in, and we opened our market three weeks ago.

Mindi: And, because there’s no more frost, keeping up with the weeds is important. Going through the strawberry patch, you’ll see there’s some. Keeping up with the weeds, mowing, and making it look nice, because part of the appeal is beauty. You don’t want a crazy farm. It’s not as beautiful.

Yes, and this farm is beautiful. It’s on a hill overlooking the rest of SVA’s campus, and you have a view of the mountains and the other hills in the valley. I’m wondering though—how do students get involved on the farm?

Mindi: One way from my side is part of how I teach geography to the freshmen. The majority of the world is involved in subsistence agriculture. The freshmen geography class does geography in action. They’re the ones that actually planted that entire field of strawberries over there. It’s really good for their physical health, and their mental health. We can learn a lot about God through the lessons out here.

How about through your side, Philip—the farm management?

Philip: Students can get involved through employment and our agriculture science class. We teach an agriculture science class that can count as a science credit needed for graduation. It’s also an elective, and it uses the standards that are found in public school agriculture programs. Also, I employ 10 SVA students as part of the education program here. 

Mindi: We believe that agriculture is not just an industry or a work program. It needs to be a vital part of the education program because there are so many lessons that you can learn from it. It’s really important to have it at schools as an industry, but actually having classes in it is important because there’s huge educational value.

How have you made the farm sustainable? 

Philip: Sustainable means that the land is able to carry quality, healthy produce. In order to do that, the elements in the soil need to be restored. We soil test, and we add back the elements that are needed by the plants. There are also minerals in the soil that get leached out through precipitation, which are not necessarily needed for plant health but are needed for human health. So, we practice remineralization of the soil. True sustainability has got to restore the elements back into the soil.

Mindi: Also, through cover cropping. Right now, we’re standing on rye, and then between the corn and things downhill, that’s buckwheat. We also want to be sustainable financially. Donors helped us get this started, but now we’re trying to offset the costs through a market and “pick your own strawberries” program. 

Is Immanuel’s Ground an organic farm?

Philip: Immanuel’s Ground is not a certified organic farm, but we do not use non-organic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. The aspects of operating an organic farm that deal with the safety of produce and things like that are really important to follow.

What kind of obstacles has the farm faced as it has grown?

Mindi: As we’ve grown, one area is summer workers. But we pray about the obstacles! Every obstacle that we come across, we pray and God helps us. We’ve been claiming Matthew 9:37-38, which says the harvest is great, but the laborers are few, but God will send laborers into his harvest. At the beginning of the summer, we hardly had any workers, but now we have seven. God just provides people, he provides funding, and he provides encouragement. This is truly God’s farm, and he’s helped us every single step of the way. Right, Philip? 

Philip: That’s right.

Industry has been a key part of the Adventist educational system’s philosophy since its founding in 1872. Adventist schools have traditionally run industries and farms since they were founded, the result of a holistic view of education. Some schools and industries were even founded with the help of Ellen White, and they employed students who used the money they earned to cover their tuition. Do you think that this model still works in the 21st century, and what are its benefits and drawbacks?

Philip: This model does not work well in the way we presently organize the schedule of the students. So, this farm is not an industry. This farm is a department in the school like the music department, math department, or science department. The farm is not here to provide funding to the school. The farm is here because agriculture education is equally as valuable as music education and science education. That value is in the practical, experiential learning, and spiritual components. These are all amazing things that early Adventist influencers wrote about. But the way that schools schedule classes—

Mindi: And government regulations, too, with child labor laws.

Philip: It’s not possible for the farm to be an industry that brings money back into the school. Our goal is for the farm operations to help offset the cost of running the farm. For example, we’re employing 10 students on the farm, and they have simple things like field trips, and then you’ve got music trips and sports. They’re only able to work an hour here, an hour there. It’s not a bulk six hours of work in the morning or an eight-hour shift or something like that. Labor is a big part of why I wouldn’t advocate that people approach agriculture as an industry that can help make a school solvent. Agriculture requires investment, just like a music department does. It’s not a revenue source for a school. It needs to be approached as though agriculture has value, just like music does. That can be done in a very small way, or it can be done in a very large way. We’ve been on both sides of that. It can be as simple as having a class garden, a school garden, teaching an agriculture science elective, all the way to where we actually employ students and pay them for the operation of the farm.

Mindi: I love the book Education and the writings of Ellen White in regard to education. The primary reason for incorporating agriculture was actually the spirituality of the students. She writes about Avondale College specifically and how, with the farm, all but one or two of the students were converted every single semester. And, the big push today with all of our students and young people is mental health. One of the best remedies for mental health is getting outside in the fresh air, moving, and working in the sunshine. We recently went to a summit by the Potomac Conference on mental health. The key goal is to push the fulcrum for the kids’ mental health. Bringing them out here to make flower arrangements, pick strawberries, and do these different tasks boosts their mental health. It boosts their spiritual health, too. 

Philip: That’s exactly right. And to add to that, the purpose of this farm is Christian service. Christian service will never go out of style; serving others always brings true joy and true peace. The students who work here meet the needs of people by providing healthy food and agricultural experiences. When they come to pick strawberries, they get to be outside in nature with their family. We see people come down to the strawberry patch with their families. They’re taking selfies. They’re having a good time playing with their kids.

Mindi: They’re eating a strawberry and then doing a jig of joy. That’s really heartwarming!

Philip: The vast majority of the people that pick strawberries here are from the community.

Mindi: We get to know them and where they’re from, and they open up about their health issues. We can pray for them. It’s a real opportunity.

How do both of you divide the work on the farm? Do you find it easy to work together?

Mindi: I help, and he takes the lead. I help with organizing the market and also with the flowers. And then, Philip takes the lead on everything else. 

Philip: I’m really grateful that my wife volunteers to help me. It’s a wonderful thing when you have a joint family ministry. It provides a unified purpose for our family. It’s a joy to work together.

Mindi: When we’re at home, sometimes we have to say, “Okay, we’re not going to talk about this anymore. We’re done for the day. We’re going to talk about something else now.” It’s good to have healthy boundaries and to have balance in your schedule. Then you have more energy and joy when you’re here.

You teach geography for the freshmen, which is another role that you’ve taken on, too.

Mindi: It’s one class, two sections. And then, I volunteer here. I chose not to work full-time because I wanted to get outside and be in nature and help out. I like working with my husband, and my health has improved as a result. It’s been such a blessing.

Philip, you worked in Haiti, and then you worked in Egypt and Morocco on agriculture and farming projects. So, can you tell us a little bit about those? Those are very different ecosystems than the Mid-Atlantic of the United States!

Philip: You mentioned Haiti, and that’s a beautiful romantic story about how I met my wife. I was an agriculture specialist for a nonprofit organization in Haiti, and my wife’s family had been working in Haiti for a very long time. They had been a part of establishing an orphanage and school. They asked if we could design a farm for their school. I remembered seeing my wife at a Christian conference, and working for her father had brought back memories. I began talking with her, and we began dating. Now, we’ve been married for 10 years. It’s wonderful to think back to Haiti. 

My agriculture journey began through my parents’ love of nature. I credit my parents for giving me an appreciation for honest hard work, being outside, and enjoying nature, and it definitely appealed to me to make the farming and mission service life one that I wanted to pursue. I was an apprentice on farms, and then my first job outside of apprenticing was in Haiti. Most of my career, I’ve been a science teacher who had a school garden. It’s only been in the last two years where my job title has been farm manager. 

Mindi: In Egypt specifically, he worked with the students on the school farm. And then in Morocco—

Philip: We had a homestead.

Mindi: We had a place in the country, and he would grow stuff. He was a teacher at an American prep school and he would sell produce to his colleagues. He started a school garden with the Moroccan students. These were upper-class Moroccan students going to this American school. That was a real experience. They probably never had experienced their hands in the dirt before. He even had them do posters about NEWSTART and health, and it was just really cool the things that he was able to do with them there.

Philip: These were people who were dropped off by their drivers in very fancy cars. And you asked them, what did you do over the summer? “Oh, we were at our vacation home in Switzerland.” What does your father do? “He owns the car dealership here.” Business owners, diplomats, people like that. 

Mindi: It’s a different world.

Mindi, you have also had a very interesting path. You represented the Seventh-day Adventist Church at the United Nations. You were a professor at the now-defunct Atlantic Union College, and, later, Southern Adventist University. What has your career path looked like over the years, and where have your roles taken you?

Mindi: I graduated from Southern with a history degree. I thought I was going to go to law school, but that’s not the path God took me on. So, through a lot of prayer, God took me to the United Nations to represent the Adventist Church just for one year. It was like an internship, but my bosses were based in Washington, D.C., so it was just me there. I got to pick what meetings to go to. The reason why God put me there is because I was really into myself and my own little world. God was telling me, woah, there’s this whole world out there with people that don’t have religious freedom. They don’t have clean water. There are 25,000 kids that die every day because they don’t have proper nutrition. My world was expanded. I wanted to go into working with ADRA or something like that. 

And so, I got a master’s degree in international studies, but God didn’t open that door. He put me straight into teaching. That was the last thing I wanted to do. But, I ended up at Atlantic Union College, and it was such a blessing to teach and interact with students from around the world. It was a really diverse school. 

Then I did some international service things, and God opened the door for Southern. While there, I got really excited about international development and was teaching in a major along those lines. When I married Philip, we wanted to go overseas together in a long-term context, so we were led to Egypt and Morocco. 

Then, when I came back to the United States, my health was ailing. I asked God, where do you want me? That’s one of the reasons why my passion for agriculture re-ignited. I still love teaching and world geography, but I am passionate about boosting my health and being able to take this knowledge and encourage the students and the community by sharing this wonderful knowledge with others. People are suffering from autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, all these different things. People are suffering, and our lifestyle of sitting all day and being inside does not help. 

What kind of challenges have you faced as farmers here that you haven’t faced elsewhere? And is it easier to farm here?

Philip: First, I want to mention that we chose the name Immanuel’s Ground to give us purpose in what this farm is all about. And it’s taken from the hymn “Marching to Zion.” It says, “We’re marching to Zion through Immanuel’s ground.” Our purpose for this farm is to bring people to Zion. Zion is what the Old Testament refers to as heaven. We want to use this farm to bring people to heaven, and it also helps us know whose farm this is in the first place. It’s not my farm, it’s not SVA’s farm–it’s God’s farm. When we have the identity correct, it gives us the endurance to overcome challenges, and it also helps us maintain good mental health. When we experience challenges, we know that we’re not alone. Immanuel means “God with us.” When we think about those things, it’s hard to remember the challenges as much, but they were there, and there were obstacles we were able to overcome. Some of them we haven’t overcome yet, but they don’t trouble us. We don’t lose sleep over it because of our mission.

Mindi: A specific obstacle we’ve had in the Shenandoah Valley is that there are a lot of bugs.  I think they’ve developed some resistance to the spraying. I’ve never seen so many pests attack. We have to take that to the Lord in prayer and do research. Our broccoli and our Brassicaceaes, when we first planted them really suffered. Philip was able to find some organic intervention and they bounced back fully.

Philip: We spray immediately, and we’ve found what organic solutions and strategies help with the pest problems here.

Mindi: And there was a big drought last summer, but thankfully we’ve had people help us put in an irrigation system. That brought us through when a lot of the other farmers suffered. So, just using modern technologies really helps combined with prayer.

What does running the farm look like over the summer? I guess you don’t get to take the summer off like other teachers do?

Philip: Most administrators are 12-month employees. It was a willing sacrifice to go from being a teacher with summers off to being an administrator with 12-month employee responsibilities. That’s obviously a no-brainer when it comes to agriculture. When we were doing school gardens as teachers, we were obviously maintaining them and involving the community in them in the summer because the summer is when agriculture happens. We take extended weekends, and all administrators are given vacation days. We take some time off during the winter holiday season, spring break, and summer. 

Mindi: What’s really helped us is that God has sent us workers this summer, and we have people like Rita down there (points downhill). She’s a volunteer. And because of that, we don’t have to do the “you pick” on Sundays because she’s volunteering. God has sent us tons of people like that, so we’ll probably take a couple of vacations this summer. 

Business office assistant and retired assistant girl’s dean, Rita Miller periodically volunteers at Immanuel’s Ground. Even in retirement, students refer to her as “Dean Rita.”

What kind of reception do you get from the community? When I came here today, there were the folks from the Northern Virginia/DC area – a long way away! How has this been for you, seeing the reception from the community?

Philip: Well, to be transparent, we’re not the ones who have put agriculture back on the map at SVA. Actually, agriculture has never been removed entirely from Shenandoah Valley Academy. Before we came, members of the New Market Seventh-day Adventist Church were already operating a strawberry operation here, and they retired. After that, we pitched the agriculture program to SVA, and they enthusiastically accepted it. We have to credit the Champion family for that, and we have to credit one of our religion teachers, Timothy Harley, because on the side, he volunteers to run the orchard. The community had expectations for us when we came here. We didn’t have to convince the community. The community was already asking us, are you going to be doing strawberries? Are you going to have sweet corn? Are you going to be doing these different things? We can’t take any credit for the community relations. I would say it was providential that agriculture didn’t die here when the church members retired from the strawberry operation. It seems to be that we were led here to continue the good work that was already being done.

Mindi: But also to bring it back into the education program. The community has had open arms. They have been so supportive. Our donors, the administration, the community, and we have had people from the very beginning just come out here and help out. We have volunteers like Rita. Rita doesn’t just pick or do what she’s doing now. She makes free bread for us every single week. The church has been so supportive. The community has come and bought our products and helped us with threshing and harvesting wheat. We have this one 80-year-old guy who just wants to help. He’s like an angel. He just shows up when we need help. He’ll come out here when it’s 30 degrees or 27 degrees and help us put the row fabric on. 

What are some of your long-term goals for Immanuel’s Ground? Do you see it getting any larger?

Philip: Our long-term goals are to provide more practical training and experiences of international agriculture service. I think that there’s an aspect of peasant subsistence farming in that they don’t have access to some of the same technologies that we’re using. I would like to demonstrate some of that. For example, small-scale rice production could be helpful. We also think it is very important to help offset the operational costs of the farm. We’re continually thinking about how we can improve the efficiency, the quality, and the marketing. We see a day in the future when we will have an online marketing platform where we will be able to ship higher-value products that have a shelf life, like granola, freeze-dried fruits, herbs, seasonings, and things like that. Even subcontracting local farmers to potentially occupy some of the vast lands that the school owns. We currently lease them out but potentially grow organic sweet corn, grain crops, or things like that on a very large scale.

Mindi: We want to involve the health message more. We want to work with our local congregation here to do health seminars. The secular world is on this. We want to really promote boosting people’s health and making friends for Jesus through that.

Images by Samuel Girven for Spectrum. Alita Byrd contributed to this story.

Samuel Girven

About the author

Samuel Girven is the Special Projects Correspondent for Spectrum. You can email him at More from Samuel Girven.
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