Hard Work U

By Ettie Berneking I Photos By Billy Sukoski
Featured in the May issue of FEAST Magazine


The skies overhead threaten rain, but students in the garden at College of the Ozarks are hard at work. Between rows of carrots just starting to pop out of the ground, three students are busy pulling weeds. Behind them, black and white Holstein cows graze along the hillside, and not far off, more students are gathered around a majestic dairy cow that towers over even the tallest among them.

College of the Ozarks isn’t a culinary school (though it offers a culinary arts degree), and this isn’t a meeting of the 4-H Club – in fact, none of the students are majoring in anything related to agriculture. Their responsibilities in the garden are part of their work programs for the semester. Those carrots they’re tending will end up at the college’s weekly farmers’ market and in the kitchen at Dobyns Dining Room at The Keeter Center, and milk from that cow will be used to make ice cream at the school’s on-site creamery. In exchange for their work, students’ tuitions are paid in full.

Located near Branson, Missouri, on 1,000 acres of bucolic countryside, College of the Ozarks is home to 1,500 students, and none of them pay tuition. Their free education is thanks to the school’s integrated work program, which assigns students to various jobs around campus based on their top five choices. Students tend to the landscape, weave baskets, run admission to the school’s museum, grind grain in its mill to make products like stone-ground grits and whole wheat flour, milk the 60-plus dairy cows, raise the school’s Hampshire and hybrid hogs, run the weekly farmers’ market, tend to its garden beds, wait tables in Dobyns Dining Room and even work in its kitchen. Total, there are more than 80 work stations on campus.

Even more surprising than, say, the fact that the pork guests order in the dining room was raised, butchered and processed by students, is that those students often aren’t even majoring in a degree related to the school’s hog farm.

Rylan Hill, a junior, has been working in the school’s gardens for two semesters, but his major is in wildlife conservation. When Hill first began taking classes, he worked in the school’s custodial program; now he labors in the gardens and at the farmers’ market and has swapped mops for garden hoes and hand spades.

“My garden at home now seems so small,” he says with a grin. “You look at these gardens and think they look easy, but so much work goes into them.”

All that hard work has been recognized on a national level – in 1973, The Wall Street Journaldubbed College of the Ozarks “Hard Work U” in a front-page story about its integrated work-education program.

College of the Ozarks was founded in 1906 as a grammar school. By 1965, it had grown into a four-year liberal arts college – but the school’s trade of work hours for tuition is as old as the college itself. One of the school’s earliest claims to fame was fruitcake – the dense cakes laced with sugary candied fruit that seem to only make an appearance around the holidays – which became a year-round goldmine for the college.

It all started in 1934 when a home economics professor decided to mail fruitcakes to see if there was consumer interest. If the school made a profit, the administrator promised to buy the home economics department its first electric stove. Some 80 years later, College of the Ozarks is still shipping more than 30,000 fruitcakes each year. If you’re on campus, stop by the fruitcake and jelly building – yes, building – to snag a sample and meet the students who bake each cake.

As the college has grown, the emphasis on producing, growing and raising food has become even more central to its mission. Just make lunch reservations at Dobyns Dining Room at The Keeter Center, and you’ll get a firsthand glance at how the school’s gardens and farm are being put to good use.

Inside the Kitchen

Clad in white service coats and black dress pants, students dash around Dobyns carrying silver serving dishes that teeter on large trays. Braeden Johnson, an accounting major, is busy waiting on several tables during the lunch rush. Back in the kitchen, Kaleigh Long, a history major, is running the expo line. She checks off tickets as orders are completed and plates of beautifully arranged food slide onto the line. Orders of fried green tomatoes encased in cornmeal (milled on campus, of course) are whisked out to the dining room. Many restaurant kitchens don’t look or sound this calm – and they’re not staffed with students. The environment in Dobyns’ kitchen is friendly and respectful.

“There’s no yelling or cursing,” says executive chef and assistant professor of culinary arts Robert Stricklin, the maestro in charge of conducting the well-orchestrated operation.

Stricklin oversees all 110 students who work in the kitchen. That might sound like a lot of people, but each student only works four hours at a time for 15 hours a week, with shifts staggered at different times throughout the day. Case in point: Students who start their day in the kitchen at 8am hand everything over to the second shift of students at noon. Stoves may be filled with food and half-finished orders, but their classes are calling, and Stricklin’s first shift of cooks, dishwashers and servers are headed out the door.

If having the entire kitchen staff turn over during the lunch rush isn’t daunting enough, imagine working with a kitchen full of people who have zero experience.

“We specialize in first-semester freshmen,” Stricklin says. “We have a culinary arts degree program and a hotel and restaurant management program, but total in both is about 55 students.”

That means there are probably just three culinary arts students working in the kitchen at any given time. The rest are majoring in criminal justice, accounting, elementary education… you name it. These students aren’t training to be chefs. This is just their work station, and they’ll feed about 300 people lunch each day.

Surprisingly, his students’ overwhelming lack of experience doesn’t cost Stricklin any sleep. This kitchen is impressive. On Easter, Dobyns served more than 1,000 people lunch, and Sunday brunch has become so popular that reservations are required. But it’s not the restaurant’s success or the number of students who go on to become chefs themselves that fills Stricklin with pride – it’s teaching his students how to use every part of the chicken.

“What’s rewarding for me is if I have an elementary education student who comes back after graduating and tells me he or she still uses what we learned in his or her own home,” he says.

Stricklin says much of the food served at Dobyns is made from scratch, grown in the school’s gardens or raised on its farms. When he makes a dish with chicken, every part of the chicken is used. “We bring in a whole chicken, cut the breast off, roast the carcass in the oven, pull the meat off the legs and thighs for pasta and boil the bones for chicken soup,” he says. “These students learn to make six to eight meals with one chicken.”

Farther back in the kitchen, past the grill station and the giant dishwasher, is Stricklin’s prep area. Racks of homemade granola bars are stacked and ready to be packaged, while rows of biscotti are cooling for tomorrow’s banquet. Off to the side, one of the massive prep tables is dusted with flour, and a pillowy mound of dough is being punched into what will soon become the restaurant’s cranberry-cinnamon biscuits. Slathered in homemade apple butter, these biscuits are akin to taking a big bite out of the Ozarks – homey, warm, stick-to-your-ribs, good old country cooking with plenty of farm-fresh flavor.

“What does the rest of the country think of as the cuisine of the Ozarks?” Stricklin asks.

For Stricklin, it’s the fresh food served at Dobyns, and it’s his mission to share that with students and diners.

Out in the Gardens

In late April, rows of kohlrabi, kale, onions, carrots and peas are just starting to sprout in the school’s gardens, which are a relatively new addition to the campus. In 2009, the college’s president requested a farmers’ market be opened on the property, and the next year, the agriculture department planted six garden plots. Before the growing season ended, six additional plots were planted, and in 2013, eight plots were added – for a grand total of 20 – as was a pumpkin patch.

Each week, the market buzzes with activity inside the school’s sale barn where shoppers stock up on fresh produce and items such as peach preserves and biscuit and scone mixes.

Back in the gardens, Lori Simmons, manager of the gardens and farmers’ market, teaches students how to successfully harvest the tiny carrots that are barely sprouting above the soil.

Just like students in the kitchen, students who work in the gardens don’t always arrive with much know-how. Many are total novices when it comes to gardening. “Not all of our students know the difference between kale and broccoli plants,” Simmons says. “But we don’t want them to feel embarrassed. This is their chance to learn.” To make sure broccoli is planted in the correct beds, Simmons started drawing pictures of the plants on rocks that are used to mark each bed.

“We have one student, for example, who is an early education major, and she’s a herdsman in the dairy,” Simmons says. “That means she pretty much runs the show.” When the student first arrived on campus, she didn’t know how to drive a tractor, and now she runs the operation.

Near the vegetable gardens are apple trees, blueberry and blackberry bushes and rows of sprawling strawberry plants. It’s beautiful out here even as the sky threatens to storm overhead. But the clouds don’t worry the group of students pulling up weeds in the garden. They’re too focused on not accidentally uprooting their newly planted bounty.

College of the Ozarks, 1 Industrial Place, Point Lookout, Missouri, 417.334.6411, cofo.edu