Emily Wade never thought she would get a college degree. The Louisville native had given academia a try, attending Jefferson Community and Technical College for a bunch of credits, University of Louisville for more. An accomplished horsewoman, she was studying equine business, then switched to communications. But in the end, money became an issue, as did her diminishing interest in traditional college education.
“I always wanted to be outside, working with horses, working on farms,” she said, reflecting back on her early college career. The Louisville native has nothing against higher ed. Her brother is finishing a doctorate in robotic engineering. Her brother and mom –– who manages crisis services for the state–– are the “academic learners” in her family, while Emily describes herself and her dad, a senior pediatric EMT as the “hands-on learners.” “We’re all incredibly supportive of each other,” she says. And in the end, they supported Emily as she “made peace with the fact that the college setting was not for me.”
“I made peace with the fact that I’d never get that piece of paper (a college degree),” she said. As she puts it, she hadn’t found “success or joy” in the classroom. Her dream took her outdoors, to farm work.
A self-described “city girl,” Emily was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and educated in the city’s public school system. Her closest family tie to agriculture was her great-grandmother, who moved from a small farm in Tennessee to Louisville in the 1950s, when her husband was working for the railroad. “She brought her rural skills to the city,” says Emily. Her great-grandmother gardened extensively in her backyard, grew fir trees, and raised poultry.
After deciding “the classroom is not where I belong” Emily found herself working on farms, working with horses, and doing a brief stint making cheese at the award-winning Capriole, in Indiana. At the Kentucky State Fair she was given a pamphlet on goat breeding, touting a course that was to begin on her 26th birthday. “That was my birthday present that year,” she said.
It was while she was studying in that goat program that a friend told her about the Wendell Berry Farming Program (WBFP). She started and re-started the application several times, questioning her own motives and doubting she would even be accepted. But the program had two main draws: first, it involved farming and second, it was tuition-free. “I couldn’t take on any more student debt,” she says. “If it hadn’t been tuition-free I don’t think I would even have applied.” She entered the first cohort of the WBFP in 2019.
What she found there was an acceptance of “my weird learning style.” A committed doodler, she often spent time in class drawing. In similar settings, she said, teachers would be offended, thinking that she looked like she was not prepared or paying attention. But at the end of a WBFP class, she said, a teacher was more likely to approach her and say “wow, what did you draw? Will you show me?’”
She did her Senior Year Research Project (SYRP) on the breeding of Boer goats (a South African breed popular for meat production) and, she says, as she presented to her cohort the thought came to her “I really know this stuff. I’m really good at this!”
“I keep telling friends and family ‘now I feel I’m really smart.’”
She graduated in May 2021 with “that piece of paper” and a boatload of confidence, as well as some big plans for her future.
The immediate future will find her returning to work at Shelby Trails Park and Red Fern Riding Center in Simpsonville, Kentucky; even her return there reflects her experience in the WBFP. She had worked at the park before, leading trail rides on horseback, but the WBFP gave her the confidence to know that she was worth more than her previous salary. Anticipating her return, she asked to discuss her salary, and was offered a job promotion and title of Trail Manager of Guided Rides. “I never have been offered a managerial job before, and if I had, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to accept it,” she said. Her two years at the WBFP changed all that.
One of her first acts in her new job was to identify a major safety hazard on a trail –– a downed tree that was hanging just above the trail. Drawing on her WBFP training in woodlot management, she identified the hazard, banned staff from taking riders near it, and outlined a plan to remove it. The tree was removed within a day.
“I know I can be a good manager because I can tell you not just what we are going to do but why it should be done that way,” she said. “I know I’m capable. I have that confidence now.”
For Emily, much of her life centers on relationships –– she peppers her conversation with references to her close-knit family, friends ranging from early childhood years to the present, and to her husband Max, whom she met in high school. The aspect of the WBFP that she values most is the sense of community. Although “Covid took a lot from us,” she says, she cherishes every moment she was able to spend with her fellow students.
While studying at the program, Emily who describes herself as “not a church person” became involved in the local Port Royal Baptist Church. The first service she attended opened with “a prayer for the ‘He’s, She’s, and They’s of God,” she recalls. “And I thought “Oh, this is a church I can get behind!” Church has also enabled her to get to know Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya. Before Emily enrolled in the WBFP, she was aware that Wendell Berry was “an important Kentucky writer who was into agriculture.” Now, she considers the nationally-known, award-winning poet and essayist “kind of like a grandpa,” who attended her baptism and with whom she regularly (before the pandemic) shared church-sponsored potluck lunches. She describes him as “an amazing, funny, cool guy.”
Emily’s immediate post-graduation plans, aside from her Trail Manager job, includes renting a farm in Henry County, which she now defines as “home.”
“This is exactly where I should be,” she says. “And that says a lot coming from someone who loves her home city, too.” She and Max–– a patient care associate who plans to pursue a degree in nursing–– have named their farm business after her great-grandmother, Lucy Wilder, calling it the Wilder Magnolia Homeplace. They will raise Boer goats. She and Max also hope to breed goats with “place-based genetics,” meaning goats that will especially thrive in their corner of Kentucky. “That whole idea of a sense of place, and of place-based genetics, that 100 percent came from this program,” she says, adding that the WBFP “has given tremendous traction to our plans.”
Prior to completing the WBFP, Emily says, she was “always environmentally conscious.” But her studies honed her understanding of what “good farming” involves, including revitalizing soil, woodlot management, and giving back to the community. During the Black Lives Matters protests of this past year, she and Max raised enough money online to create “Protestor CARE Packages,” delivered to the protests by WBFP student Ashland Tann. “At the time, Max was working almost 100% with Covid patients, and we didn’t think it would be responsible to go to the protests and potentially expose people,” she says. “But we wanted to help.” She raised nearly $3,500 from Facebook and Instagram posts to support the effort. As a grower, she especially hopes to donate food to members of her community suffering from food insecurity.
Her advice to the incoming cohort is to embrace the learning opportunities and each other. “Just accept that you are 100 percent in the place you are meant to be,” she says.