As the last of the warm breezes rustle changing leaves, we can finally pause for a few moments and reflect on a summer worth savoring. The Sterling College campus was buzzing from May through August—and not just because we added several honeybee hives to our farm. 248 students and instructors participated in the inaugural summer of the School of the New American Farmstead, a rich, season-long transmission of knowledge, skill, and culture. Ten-day intensive food classes brought uniquely qualified instructors to our little corner of Vermont and opened the door for budding food artisans to explore their passion for quality food in the context of environmentally resilient and equitable systems. Agricultural workshops and classes equipped students with practical expertise and knowledge to build sustainable working landscapes.

As each newcomer arrived in Craftsbury Common, the embrace of the Sterling College community stretched a little wider in welcome. We were delighted to share this very special place and its urgent mission with an audience of continuing education students, as well as with accomplished guest instructors and speakers. Students who traveled to the Northeast Kingdom from as far away as Australia and as near as New Hampshire were surprised by both the warmth and openness of Sterling’s people and the quality of instruction offered in a humble setting.   

Throughout the summer, our classes and workshops—as well as the companion lectures and demonstrations that we held open to the public—highlighted skills and values central to environmental stewardship. Whether we were working with soil or dough, the School of the New American Farmstead course curricula were characterized by hands-on approaches to the subjects taught. No matter what course or workshop, students came away with a greater reverence and concern for the critical connections between farm, food, and community.

dairy craft

Together, we learned to inoculate woodchips and grow mushrooms, manage our productive landscapes to preserve bird and pollinator habitats, maintain presence and mindfulness in the bee yard, holistically support plant immune function in our orchards, design for regenerative agricultural landscapes, and work to the rhythm of an animal-powered farm. In our teaching kitchen, we learned to create exquisite meals from underappreciated plant species, so-called “weeds” and “invasives,” expanding our palates and our concepts of what we can consume. We learned to home-culture milk and cream with kefir grains, making the most delicious fresh butter with a few shakes of a mason jar. We cooked and baked through the full heat cycle of a wood-fired oven; butchered, processed, and cured nearly all edible parts of a hog; fermented spicy kimchees and lively krauts; and learned nearly 30 techniques to safely enjoy the bounty of a late-summer harvest all year long. Because summer evenings pair well with a cold beer, we also studied the science of malting and brewing, captured wild yeasts, explored redevelopment of a regional hops industry in the Northeast, and put our skills to practice by brewing on-site at Hill Farmstead. And in our “Food Writing from the Farm” class, we learned how to integrate and communicate experience, identity, culture, and place through food-focused narratives.

When experiential education connects students to world-renowned experts, the opportunities for inspiration only increase. Aspiring authors were awed by the opportunity to have their writing critiqued by former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl and New York Times writer Kim Severson. Farmers and landowners took every opportunity, in class and out, to present their ideas and plans for restoring degraded working lands to Regrarians founder Darren Dougherty. Enthusiasts-turned- entrepreneurs tried to play it cool while they worked with Mateo Kehler and the rest of the cheesemakers at award-winning Jasper Hill and brewed (and drank) beer with Shaun Hill. And students had a blast as they confidently made and tasted some really funky foods with the always charming fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz.

The School of the New American Farmstead programming was generously supported by Chelsea Green Publishing, the preeminent publisher of books on the politics and practice of sustainable living. Chelsea Green, an independent publishing company, works with authors who bring in-depth, practical knowledge to life. Many of the School of the New American Farmstead’s esteemed instructors are authors of widely read Chelsea Green titles, including Tradd Cotter, Pascal Baudar, David Asher, Richard Miscovich, and Michael Phillips.

It was a satisfying pleasure to see products from our own farm and, indeed, parts of our uncultivated landscape utilized fully. Nourishing products of the Sterling lands were cultivated and harvested by students studying in the Integrated Farming Practicum and earning work-exchange hours while harvesting. These products—the freshest, most local ingredients—became our primary course materials. In classes, they were transformed into exceptional value-added comestibles for our kitchen and dining hall. Finally, the leftover bits even completed the loop by becoming compost, remaining squarely within our own food system. Such an applied and integrated approach to food production and education leaves no room to doubt that our food choices are expressions of environmental stewardship.

Students and visiting instructors were moved by what one called “the nourishing spirit of Sterling College.” Several expressed gratitude for the opportunity to develop and share skills that will serve them and their communities well for years to come. After immersing themselves in both the Sterling experience and the vibrant working landscape of the Northeast Kingdom, affinity turned into affection as students came away with a “newfound love, curiosity, and respect for all things from farm and forest,” sentiments that inspire stewardship. •

Filed Under: Blog Newsroom Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems