Good Work Is Membership

by Dr. Leah Bayens


“People are joined to the land by work. Land, work, people, and community are all comprehended in the idea of culture.”

— Wendell Berry, “People, Land, and Community”


The union of land, people, and community defines good work. The Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College is founded on this principle. In Henry County, Kentucky, we offer an education for “right livelihood”—in ways of living that are modestly scaled, humble, and attuned to lessons from the “saving remnants” of our struggling rural places. These values guide the hands-on learning that uses The Berry Center’s home place as a classroom.

We’re not the only ones who think that this approach to education is, in itself, a “right livelihood”. Thanks to a generous gift from the NoVo Foundation, we’ll expand this good work by offering to students from Kentucky and elsewhere a no-tuition, junior- and senior-year undergraduate farming curriculum in Henry County. To be accredited as part of the Sterling College Sustainable Agriculture degree program, we will provide an agricultural education that links the liberal arts to farming, forestry, draft power, and healthy community and land stewardship. The program combines the arts and sciences with community-based, cooperative economics and training.  Students will work side by side with excellent farmers, foresters, and rural advocates, including The Berry Center staff, Sterling College faculty,  and our local neighbors.

This full-time slate of classes will build on short courses taught in Henry County in August 2018 and January 2019. This past fall semester, twelve Sterling College students took part in our inaugural course, “Homecoming I: Good Work Is Membership.” Students surveyed the natural and cultural history of the area and considered how good work leads to membership in place, or as Wendell Berry puts it, how “people are joined to the land by work” (“People, Land, and Community”). They trained Wendell Berry’s draft horses on his son Den Berry’s farm. They listened in on farmer Steve Smith’s compelling story of his land’s tenure from the time when indigenous communities made their lives there to his life in the place, during which he shifted from conventional production to operating the first CSA in Kentucky. They examined the extractive history of farming along Drennon Creek with our neighbors Tom and Janet Grissom, on whose land students observed the forest’s succession and discussed the challenges to a local forest economy. They pitched in with the Agrarian Literary League’s fall festival by selling The Berry Center’s’ Our Home Place Meat at the farmers’ market, judging cakes and cobblers for the Best of Henry County Bake-Off, rousing a dance party at the Odd Fellows’s fish fry, and generally making the day run smoothly from set up to clean up. Through these experiences, they learned, as student Paige Garner put it:

Good work is in part based on healthy limitation.  The land can only take so much cultivation, our bodies can only work so many hours, and in that way we find ourselves empowered by our limitations as we are forced to stretch out and rely on our draft teams and our neighbors.  Our limitations empower us to build community by the necessity of sharing the burden in order to reach our absolute potential.

At the end of this month, ten Sterling College students will return to the Grissom’s Drennon Woods Farm for a restorative forestry class—a draft horse logging short course featuring Sterling College draft animal educator Rick Thomas, Healing Harvest Forest Foundation’s Jason Rutledge, and Kentucky draft logger Ben Burgess. We’ll hold a free open house demonstration for the community on Saturday, February 2 from 10:00am – 1:00pm. Integrating the lives of our students and our neighbors is essential to the WBFP’s vision—to circulate certain kinds of knowledge outside of academic institutions and to get lived experiences into them.

This inclusive, cooperative education is crucial. To address the mounting crisis in agriculture, we must shift away from the predominant approach to education: upward mobility. This pursuit has devastated rural communities across the map by leading people away from the countryside while economic and social forces simultaneously make it impossible for many to live from and with the land. Instead, as our Kansas friend Wes Jackson put it, education ought to prepare “the young people to return home, or to go some other place, and dig in.” In this line, we like to call our program a “major in homecoming.”

Wendell Berry Farming Program participants are learning from an ecological model of thrift and living within limits. We are exploring the endlessly fascinating world and learning how to cultivate land-based communities. And we’re doing it in conjunction with The Berry Center’s efforts to put a stable farm economy around a culture that values the land and the people.

The NoVo Foundation’s grant makes so much possible for our students. Regardless of what a person studies in college, they generally leave school with an average of $30,000 to $40,000 of student loan debt. That’s a hefty balance for anybody, but it’s especially hard on agriculture students. This debt is a stumbling block for people trying to buy a house and land to farm, not to mention all the other startup costs associated with farming. This grant means our graduates will have fewer burdens getting in the way of getting on the land.

This gift makes so much possible for our community, too.  Students will bring new life to our place, all the while learning from and about our rich history. Wendell Berry Farming Program graduates will be skilled farmers, considerate neighbors, and committed community members—people ready to dig in. That’s exactly what rural places need and deserve.

Taken together, we are putting culture back into agriculture and community into education. Interested WBFP applicants can find more information here or contact the Sterling College Office of Admission: [email protected] Phone: (800) 648-3591/(802) 586-7711 ext. 100.

Note for prospective Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College applicants:

With the news of this grant, the College is seeking authorization from its accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education, to establish a new instructional site in Kentucky and is working with the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education for licensure to offer the program in Kentucky. Updates on this process will be posted at

Filed Under: Blog Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Uncategorized

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