Passing the Super Walmart, as subdivisions begin to dwindle, Ambler becomes Texas State Highway 351 East 351 and shrinks to two lanes. Mesquite trees dot the grassy plains and urban life slowly gives way to rural West Texas, with farmhouses keeping watch over grazing cattle and horses, all under the revolving arms of the wind turbines towering above.
After 15 miles or so, four red brick pillars, remnants of some fence long gone, sit on the right as sentinels, marking a left turn onto a country gravel road. If you drive slowly enough, the dust clears, and you might see the tumbleweeds snagged on barbed wire fences or a cautious coyote darting back into brush cover. You’ll pass more farmhouses and may have to squeeze onto the road’s nonexistent shoulder to let aÂ lumbering truck and trailer pass, but you’re still not there.
A small, square, purple and white sign marks the final left turn. Its arrow points toward “The Rhoden,” as its friends know it, otherwise called Clifford Rhoden Farm or simply Rhoden Farm. And if you drive just a little farther, one of ACU’s premier research facilities sits on 400 acres of West Texas wilderness. Now, you’re there.
The property contains a horse barn, facilities for goats, a chicken coup, a warehouse for large machinery and projects, a farmhouse, the Allen Events Center – a house frequently used as a retreat location for ACU groups and offices – and a working feedlot, leased out.
The Rhoden is surrounded by native pasture, improved pasture, areas cultivated for small grains and some research plots. Its residents include about 120 goats, 50 laying hens – which soon may be supplying eggs for undergraduate research – some 25 head of cattle, eight horses, four Anatolian shepherds and Farm Manager Ellice Pierce, who has been living at Rhoden since she accepted the position of farm manager in the summer of 2008.
“I learn something new everyday,” Pierce said of her job as manager.
As a student in the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, class of 2008, Pierce remembers benefitting from the resources Rhoden provides ACU students, especially after becoming employed as the teaching assistant for the Horses and Horsemanship lab, one of several that meets on the farm.
Now, as farm manager, Pierce lives at Rhoden and takes care of the day- to-day chores of running a farm, seeing to general maintenance and keeping all animals fed and safe. And she’s not the only one learning. Her job ensures ACU students have an orderly, functional facility for undergraduate research ranging from soil experimentation to legume alterations to animal husbandry.
“They’re out here all the time,” Pierce said. “They work really hard.”
Tiffany Lutz, junior animal science major from Harmony, Pa., spentÂ her summer working with goats, researching whether tropical forestÂ legumes could enhance a grain-based diet. Lutz also works at Rhoden,Â helping with general maintenance like mowing grass and cleaning pens.Â She is relieved to have found a student worker job that’s not confined toÂ a desk.
“I would so much rather be out in the open than be in an office; it’s just who I am,” she said.
Rhoden gives undergraduate students the chance to get their hands dirty, to really experience agricultural and environmental sciences. And Lutz said she was thankful for the chance to get experience for future graduate school endeavors, calling Rhoden a valuable resource for ACU students.
It reflects positively on ACU’s program, especially considering the department’s relatively small size, she said.
Department Chair Foy Mills, professor of animal science, said few other programs of this size offer such a hands-on education, as ACU does. And the university’s status as a private institution, combined with Abilene’s unique, arid environment, makes the program truly unique.
Dr. Ed Brokaw, professor of animal science, said the opportunities offered at Rhoden would be much harder to attain at a larger university, like Texas A&M.
“Because of our size, individual students have more opportunity to be involved,” Brokaw said. “Sheer numbers prevent everybody from doing it in a big program. Out here, we are smaller, so every student has the opportunity to come out and participate.”
Those opportunities even extend to tailoring research and activities to students’ specific interest during their time at ACU, contributing to a more unique overall experience, Brokaw said.
“Based on their interest, we also have the opportunity to be a little more flexible in terms of what we might do in this program or that program.”
In addition to research opportunities, Lutz said she appreciated theÂ chance to get to know her advising professor, Dr. Florah Mhlanga,Â professor of animal science, on a more professional, yet personable,Â level outside the classroom.
“I was harvesting legumes with Dr. Mhlanga, working side-by-side, bending over and pulling out plants,” she said. “And doing that, I got to hear stories about when she lived in Africa, how she grew up. I just really appreciate that. It’s just been really good.”
An Evolving History
Acquired in 1980 as a gift from the Anderson Clayton Company, Rhoden became ACU’s primary farm in the early 2000s, as more animals and equipment moved to the property and more facilities were developed,Â Mills said.
Although initial plans for the property included a more commercial purpose with academic benefits, Mills said focus eventually shifted, by consideration of risk and educational necessity. Now the property functions primarily as an educational laboratory, with some commercial output.
For instance, surplus goats are sent to market. Also, in addition to paying lease, the feedlot on the property employs several ACU students, offering them valuable work experience in addition to a paycheck, Mills said.
Brokaw has been with the department since before Rhoden’s acquisition, able to watch its evolving function and level of importance. He hopes the farm will continue to serve as a resource for more and more students and says with incoming students’ levels of agricultural and environmental experience seeming to lessen in recent years, the facility serves a more crucial role than ever.
“Our students are coming from very different backgrounds and have very different perceptions of the level of care and treatment that animals ought to have or what animals ought to be used for,” Brokaw said.
Mills said some students, coming to college intending to become veterinarians, don’t realize they would be required to operate onÂ animals, and their experience with “livestock” consists solely of familyÂ cats or dogs. Rhoden gives those students a chance to taste the grit andÂ reality of agricultural and environmental sciences in raw application.
For Lutz, the hands-on experience has been one she suspects is largely unique to ACU.
“I don’t know that I would get this at a larger university,” Lutz said. “You wouldn’t get to work one-on-one with the professors and, being from a smaller university, having a small department and having this resource, just given the opportunity of doing research, it’s really nice.”
Despite its distance from campus, Pierce said the students who utilize the Rhoden receive hands-on research experience and, beyond that, the chance to immerse themselves in the grittier sides of their future careers. For some, it becomes an escape.
“Most students like to come out and get away from town for a while,” she said.