As a student passionate about food and agriculture, Ashland Tann, learned quickly that when he spoke about this passion “people’s eyes would just glaze over.”
“But if I cooked them something,” he says, flashing a grin, “they started paying attention. I started making progress when I started cooking.”
Thus it should come as no surprise that Ashland’s SYRP (Senior Year Research Project) for the Wendell Berry Farming Program (WBFP) of Sterling College was a dish of food. He describes the multi-layered dessert he created as “two years of [WBFP] experience on a plate.”
The dish sounds straightforward enough: A slice of sweet roll topped with ice cream topped with crème anglaise and blueberry compote. But explaining the deeper meaning is anything but. It was, in essence, a tasty demonstration of Wendell Berry’s statement that “eating is an agricultural act.”
Take the sweet roll. Ashland baked a sort of cinnamon roll, in which the role of cinnamon was played by Henry County Burley tobacco, tobacco which Ashland and other program students volunteered to help harvest at a local farm. had helped to harvest. The sweet roll itself flavored with rosemary and brown sugar.
Learning about that tobacco, and participating in the harvest, provided Ashland with a better understanding of “proportion.” And his sweet roll “toast point” with tobacco in it allowed him, he said, to open up that conversation about proportion.
“Those farmers don’t plant tobacco fence row to fence row,” he says. “They plant enough to make some money, pay the bank, pay their taxes, but still have time for other projects on the farm, for growing vegetables, and for spending time with their families and neighbors,” he says.
The vanilla ice cream came from Rowlett’s Milkhouse Creamery, a Henry County family enterprise. Ashland had previously worked with Rowlett’s to create another ice cream flavor –– Sour Cream Bourbon –– during a food pop-up he hosted during his WBFP time. But for his SYRP he wanted to “keep it simple while keeping it local” and he chose plain vanilla.
For the crème anglaise topping, Ashland worked with black walnut syrup tapped and processed from local trees by WBFP students. The blueberry compote, he said, was “brightened” with a splash of moonshine –– his unnamed source is related to a fellow student –– aged for several months with “the first red cedar I ever cut down.”
“Well, I say I cut it down, but it was with plenty of help from Rick Thomas,” he says of WBFP faculty member.
Ashland started life as a city kid, born and raised in Baltimore. But his mother, from rural St. Mary’s County, Maryland, took him back to her childhood home frequently, where he visited farms and farm markets. It was there, he said, that he began “internalizing” the connection between farms, farmers, and food. “I learned respect for the land and people,” he says.
His junior year of high school found him in North Carolina, where, after graduation, he went on to study political science at Elizabeth City State University. “I wanted to understand the way the world works,” Ashland says of his chosen major. “I want to leave the world a better place.”
He became a “Local Food Ambassador,” a position designed to encourage local food education on campus and support local foods in campus dining. That’s when he realized that, in essence, a plate of food, like a picture, is worth a thousand words; that if you want to send a message about food, you had better start cooking. He did just that. “People started sniffing – hmmm, the hall smells different,” he says. “Suddenly I was getting random knocks on my door.” As his passion for food grew, so did Ashland’s determination to learn as much about it as possible. “Everyone thought I was crazy, but I was like ‘hold on, I’ve got to go to culinary school.” And he was off to College of the Albemarle in Edenton, North Carolina. He remembers months of juggling classes and restaurant jobs, snatching an hour or two of sleep in his car, and soaking up all he could about food.
As Ashland dug deeper into issues of food sustainability, Sterling College began popping up on his radar. He was, he says, “blown away” by the fact that Sterling grows 30 percent of its own food, sources 34 percent from a 150-mile radius, and has been ranked #1 in the country by the Real Food Challenge, a nationwide initiative to make college food more local, sustainable, and healthful.
“I knew I had to get into that Sterling kitchen,” he says. He set his sights on Vermont. “I was all set to go snowboarding with hippies,” he adds, laughing.
But while visiting the Craftsbury, Vermont, campus he learned about the WBFP; and a graduate he met while in Vermont strongly suggested he apply. “The free tuition is huge,” he said. “It enabled me not to put myself into crippling debt in order to get this education I desired.”
He recalls a moment in draft animal class with Rick, when his mom called on his cell phone. “I said, mom, I’ve got two 3,000-pound animals at the end of these reins. I really have to get off the phone,” he says, laughing. He found his community in Louisville, where he moved his second semester. In addition to his course work, he began hosting dining ‘pop-ups” around the city, and working at farmers markets. During lulls in the market, he read Wendell Berry’s “Think Little” essays. “The timing of me reading these particular words at that time….” Ashland says, his thoughts trailing off. “It wasn’t serendipity, really, but, let’s just say those words stuck with me.” Faced by a “mountain of things that needed to be done” during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, he kept Berry’s message in mind: “Little steps become a large change. You don’t have to do it all at once,” he says.
During the protest, Ashland began distributing “protestor survival packs” assembled by WBFP student Emily Wade and her husband, and wound up working with a Louisville chef who is also a trained medic to help protestors keep safe.
Jailed overnight during the protests, Ashland became incensed that the only food served to him and his fellow detainees, after many hours of incarceration, were ham sandwiches which a Rastafari among their number –– following the religion’s dietary restrictions on meat –– could not eat. In the hours after their release, Ashland and a group of volunteers, with the support of a Louisville chef who gave them access to his restaurant kitchen, turned out 1,600 vegan meals for protestors.
He found the WBFP challenging. “It’s definitely the kind of place where you have to take an active part in your own education. You have to determine for yourself what you are going to get out of it.” It fueled his interest in farming and helped him shape his long-term goal of running an educational farm with a restaurant that would demonstrate the viability of locally sourced food. In the end, he says, he “couldn’t imagine how it could have all turned out any better.”
Post-graduation, Ashland’s passion for local, sustainable food pulls him in many directions. He hopes to study at a cooking school in Italy. He is interested in horticultural education for prison populations, which has sparked his interest in vertical farming and hydroponics. He’s learning “front of the house” service at a restaurant. Ultimately, he sees himself cooking in a restaurant on an educational farm.
“People listen to chefs,” he said. “In order for me to spread this gospel of local food, people will have to know my face, trust my food.” It is the only way, he says, “to build my ethos.”
Ashland graduated from the first cohort of the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College in May 2021.