In 1961 Al Horne and Eldred Echols purchased the farm with the dream of establishing a safe place to train black Christian men to be preachers. The farm would become the financial base to support the school. They searched for a supporting congregation to take on the farm and begin the school. Finally in 1966 The Montgomery Blvd. Church of Christ in Albuquerque, NM agreed to take on the challenge. Al and Eldred Echols donated their interest in the farm and Montgomery Blvd began what would be a 45 year supervision and support of the school.
Nick Decker and his wife, Lorriane, blazed the trail (literally) and built their house – the Rondaval which is still standing and in use today. They drilled the water well to supply the school and began the school in 1967. Shorty Winfield a Arkansas farmer & graduate of Sunset SOP and his wife Maudeene moved to the school in 1968 as the “missionary farmer”. The land had not been cultivated in the last 20 years so the scrub African brush and grass had taken over the land. Shorty cleared the land and cleaned 9 miles of canal to irrigate the farm. The farm was mildly successful for 2 years but soon the upstream neighbors started using the canal water and none would reach the farm when most needed. Conflict arose between Decker and Winfield and the end result was that Winfield was called home to the states. Later both Winfield and Decker were dismissed by MBCC elders.
Mickey Figueredo had been sent to the States for education at LCC and SSSOP. He returned with his new American bride, Ann, to oversee the school. Mickey was excited to preach but felt that the farming took too much time away from the main purpose of the school. Crop failures also convinced the MBCC elders to cease all farming operations. The land remained untilled until after 1996.
J.L. and Lorene Brazell were sent to Swaziland by the Elders of MBCC in 1995 to review all financial records of MBS and to determine if it was time to close the school and sell the property. The Brazells had operated businesses in NM and were known to be tough on theft, fraud, and incompetence. J.L. was given “Power of Attorney” to sell property or whatever he deemed to be best regarding firing personnel. After careful examination of the financial records J.L. & Lorene concluded that all money had been utilized appropriately and accounted for. They concluded that the greatest problem was a lack of oversight and guidance from MBCC. J.L. pleaded with the Elders at MBCC to give him authority to manage the school for 3 years before making a decision to close the school – using the story of Jesus regarding the unfruitful fig tree.
J.L. was amazed that fruitful land that grew thick tall grass had not been utilized to provide for the school! He commissioned the staff at MBS to find someone to rent the land and farm it. Several attempts proved fruitless. No one was willing to pay enough to make it worthwhile.
Providentially, Evan Lewis visited the school for a lectureship and saw the unused farmland. He brought a professional Christian farmer named Dirk Stein to see the land. Dirk was in the process of converting his sugar cane fields into a macadamia farm. He took soil samples and gathered weather data and concluded that the farm would be great to grow macs. In fact, the MBS land was better suited than his own. Dirk and Evan submitted several proposals to the MBCC elders to develop the farm into a mac farm. Each proposal was met with resistance by some of the Elders at MBCC – especially the oldest Elders who remembered the cost and failures of the farming operation 20+ years before. J.L. would not give in nor give up. At one point a meeting was called by the Elders to tell J.L. “Back off or step aside as an Elder”. They finally agreed to let the operation go forward provided that “all money for the Tree of Life Project be raised by J.L. outside of MBCC “.
In March 1997 Dirk Stein and Evan Lewis came to MBS along with a few members from the Empangeni Church of Christ and began planting the “test orchard” with 400 trees. Among the group was Eldred Echols daughter Cheryl and her family. Cody Hart, Eldred Echols’ grandson was given the priviledge to plant the first tree on 1 March 1997. The first 400 trees were planted out within a week. Each of the 400 holes was dug manually by the students. In April 1997 J.L. was present with Dirk and Evan to begin connecting the irrigation to the first trees. A few months later (December 1999) Dirk Stein was killed in a car crash and TOL lost a dear brother and its only expert farmer. Evan Lewis of necessity had to step in and take charge. Mac farming was in its infancy in SA and we eventually realized that the “Expert Advisors” were pioneers as well. A lot of bad advice was given to Evan and us. Looking back, we acknowledge that God was looking over us because we certainly did not know what we were doing and had no one to turn to who actually did know. Eldred Echols was back in Africa for a visit and was privileged to visit the tree of life project accompanied by his daughter, son in law, and grandchildren. Finally after 30 years his dream of the farm providing funding for the school was becoming true! Many others from the Durban church and the USA came to help plant out trees as the project grew. Among them was a group from Richland Hills.
In May 1997, Kurt and Wendy Platt did a presentation on the Tree of life project at the “Africans Claiming Africa” conference in Harare Zimbabwe. Display boards were put up showing the beginning and establishment of the first trees. Many contributed financially towards the project and it became known among some of the churches in Africa and the USA.
In 1998, Evan and Jason Fowler from Cookville, Tennesse put together the diagrams and planning of the irrigation trenches. Jason and the students dug trenches by hand with picks and shovels about 1/2 mile to the river. The trenches were a meter deep and about 4km in total length. That was an enormous task! Jason had just graduated from Abilene Christian University and had farming and tree growing experience. He spent a month at MBS accomplishing the task. Later the pipes were laid by Les Warren and Gary Smal and some other members of the Epangeni church in South Africa.
J.L. Arrived on campus in time to construct the reservoir. It was very similar to constructing a vinyl lined swimming pool. (J.L. had installed pools for one summer as one of his businesses).
Wendy Platt had experience growing proteas in SA which are similar to macs. When there was a shortage of seedling trees in the nurseries in South Africa, Wendy supervised the growing of 25,000 mac seedlings from nuts planted into plastic bags. The students mixed rich soil and fertilizer in a cement mixer, filled the bags, planted the nuts, and nursed them into seedlings. We should have grafted the seedlings while in the nursery but were told it was OK to plant them in the field and graft them later. While that was technically true, it was a huge mistake! It was so much harder in field than in a nursery setting. Besides the success rate was very low in field!
The first 1500 seedlings were planted into the field without being grafted before it was properly cleared of the many large rocks and before the grass had been poisoned. The rains came abundantly that year and the grass shot up taller than the trees before the field was dry enough to mow. Wendy’s dad Albert had to move very slowly with the tractor to avoid hitting the trees and the many rocks! Some days, he spent as much time removing rocks as he did mowing. Eventually the trees began to thrive in spite of the errors in the process.
In 1999 Nathan West worked with the tree of life project for 6 months. He was from New Mexico. Trips were made to Nelspruit to collect shoots to graft onto the trees in the field. These trips were made on a weekly basis. It was hard work and each stem had to be worked with carefully so as not to allow the rootstock to dry before the shoot is securely tied to it. Nathan also worked on the construction of the first pump house to pump water from the river up to the trees. He returned to the USA in December 1999.
Chris and Kathy Naude joined the project as project managers in July 2000. By 2001 the orchard was looking great. The trees were thriving and the first 400 trees were about to put on nuts. But on September 11, 2001 (the same day as the twin Towers were attacked) a fire swept through the orchard. The irrigation pipe had been laid on top of the ground between the trees making it impossible to mow a 3′ wide strip of grass. That tall grass acted like a fuse leading the fire from tree to tree. About three thousand trees had been destroyed or severely damaged. What a sickening sight it was to all who had labored so hard to get it to this point! It took a month or two before we could summon the strength and faith to begin again. Replanting began in 2002 under the management of Chris Naude. Fire hydrants were installed throughout the orchard. The pipes were buried so that mowing could be done between the trees and wide fire breaks were established. Firefighting equipment was secured and all students and personnel were trained in firefighting.
J.L. continued to raise funds for tree purchase, irrigation and other needed equipment for TOL. The planting of 14,000+ trees was finally completed in 2005. Better advice became available from the “experts” of the South African Macadamia Association and better farming methods have resulted in healthy thriving trees.
Some of the best things to happen for the TOL was God providing Sydney Mhango and Jim & Jenene Marnach to serve in Swaziland! The Marnachs brought a wealth of experience in nut production from their 30 years of experience in raising hazelnuts in Oregon. They have been tireless workers all over the campus but especially in the orchard. God could not have found another couple like them to fill the many gaps at TOL! They have travelled at their own expense each year to spend months at ACC giving guidance to TOL. Sydney likewise has been God’s man for the job! He is a very bright and hard worker who has studied hard to learn as much as possible about mac farming. He amazes everyone about him with his stamina and hard work ethic. His dedication and ethic rubs off on the other workers at TOL. As an African from Zambia, we do not fear him coming back to the States. We just pray God will keep him safe and at TOL for many many years.
And the story continues…