Sterling Receives $2.5 Million Grant and a $500,000 Fundraising Challenge from the NoVo Foundation

Grant to Fund No-Tuition Sustainable Agriculture Program in Kentucky Named for Wendell Berry

Craftsbury Common, Vt. —  January 8, 2019 — In response to the crisis in agriculture and rural communities, Sterling and The Berry Center have announced that they will collaboratively launch The Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College in Henry County, Kentucky, a no-tuition undergraduate sustainable agriculture degree program, inspired by the lifework and writing of farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry. The $2.5 million grant and challenge, once met, will provide a total of $3.5 million for operation of the program through 2024.

“This farming program is exactly what most needs doing here,” said Wendell Berry, whose family has lived and farmed in Henry County for nine generations. “We’re grateful to the NoVo Foundation for supporting our vision of educating a next generation to farm sustainably and build prosperous rural communities and healthy regional economies,” said Mary Berry, executive director of The Berry Center. “The Wendell Berry Farming Program helps fill in a gap that is missing from local food movements on how future farmers can actually make a living farming.”

With funding from this grant and experience gained over decades through its nationally-recognized sustainable agriculture program in Vermont, Sterling looks forward to expanding the reach of its mission to Kentucky in collaboration with The Berry Center by offering a Sterling degree in sustainable agriculture in Henry County. Admission will be highly selective, but students will be chosen without regard for financial ability to pay tuition. With the NoVo Foundation grant, Sterling guarantees that students will not pay tuition, giving graduates better prospects to farm without relying on student loans.

Sterling was one of the first colleges in the United States to focus on the human relationship in the natural world, and its curriculum has long been influenced by Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, among others. The College inspires lifelong environmental stewardship through experiential liberal arts education that prepares students to become knowledgeable, skilled and responsible leaders in the communities in which they live.  “This program is visionary, practical and essential in the face of the environmental and social challenges facing rural America,” said Sterling’s President Matthew Derr, who first conceived of the program being located in Kentucky. “This is a commitment agricultural universities should be making across this nation and we’re honored the NoVo Foundation and The Berry Center will be our partners in this work.”

The Wendell Berry Farming Program will be led by Sterling faculty who make their homes in Kentucky, including Rick Thomas, who is co-director of the agriculture and food systems program and has taught at the College since 2006, and native Kentuckian, Dr. Leah Bayens. Bayens joins Sterling’s faculty in January as the program’s dean, and has worked since 2012 developing similar liberal arts and farming programs. “I am pleased with the opportunity to scale out the educational model we have honed in Craftsbury,” said Thomas. “In particular, I look forward to the continued good work of teaching the use of draft animals as a reliable and appropriate power source for modern farming enterprises and woodland operations in Henry County, Kentucky.”  

The NoVo Foundation invests in strengthening relationships by supporting thriving local communities to inspire people to re-imagine a world where we live in balance with one another and the ecosystems that sustain us.


For more information about the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College, please visit:




Matthew Derr, President, Sterling College

A community organizer and educator, Matthew has led Sterling College through an unparalleled period of growth in  enrollment, philanthropic support, and renewed focus on its mission of environmental stewardship. He was recognized by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education as chief executive officer of the year in 2010. He is an advocate for placed-based models of liberal arts education and has led the efforts to establish both the School for the New American Farmstead and the Wendell Berry Farming Program. President Derr serves as the Chair of the Work Colleges Consortium and as a trustee of the Center for an Agricultural Economy.

Mary Berry, Executive Director, The Berry Center

Mary Berry was raised by her parents, Wendell and Tanya Berry, at Lanes Landing Farm in Henry County, Kentucky, from the time she was six years old. She farmed for a living in Henry County, starting out in dairy farming, growing Burley tobacco, and later diversifying to organic vegetables, pastured poultry, and grass-fed beef. A trustee of Sterling College and the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, she speaks all over the country as a proponent of agriculture of the middle, in defense of small farmers, and in the hope of restoring a culture and an economy that has been lost in rural America.

Leah Bayens, Dean, the Wendell Berry Farming Program

Leah joined The Berry Center’s work in 2012 as the director of the former Berry Farming Program at St. Catharine College, where she developed undergraduate degrees that translated Wendell Berry’s work into a hands-on, interdisciplinary curriculum. In partnership with Sterling College, Leah fine-tunes this new agrarian education, calling on her research in agrarian literature, history, and culture. Leah earned her the University of Kentucky in environmental literature.


Founded in 1958 in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, Sterling College is the leading voice in higher education for environmental stewardship and rural place-based education. The College was among the first in the United States to focus on the human relationship in the natural world through majors in Ecology, Environmental Humanities, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, and Outdoor Education. Enrolling 120 undergraduate and 200 continuing education students, Sterling is home to the School of the New American Farmstead, the Wendell Berry Farming Program, is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and is one of only nine federally recognized Work Colleges in the nation.


The Berry Center is putting Wendell Berry’s writings to work by advocating for farmers, land-conserving communities, and healthy regional economies. Their work seeks to provide solutions to essential issues that are rarely in public discourse and certainly are not reflected in agricultural policies. “What will it take for farmers to be able to afford to farm well?” and “How do we become a culture that supports good farming and land use?”  They believe that the answers—while firmly rooted in local work—are central to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems including the devastation of natural resources and biodiversity; rapid onset of climate change; economic and social inequities; and the collapse of healthy farming and rural communities.



Katie Lavin, Director of Media Relations, Sterling College (802) 586-7711 x120 • [email protected]

Ben Aguilar, Director of Operations, The Berry Center (502) 845-9200 • [email protected]


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

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