“Draw succinct and tangible connections between education and communities and the land”
(Wendell Berry, Henry County, Kentucky: January 12, 2012)
In Henry County, Kentucky, the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College offers a tuition-free curriculum focused on ecological management of livestock, pasture, and forest using draft animals and other appropriately scaled mixed power systems. Inspired by the lifework of farmer and writer Wendell Berry, and designed in partnership with The Berry Center, in New Castle, Kentucky, the program serves students from Kentucky and elsewhere who intend to farm. In combination with previously-earned credits, students may earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems from Sterling College, a federally-recognized Work College. Wendell Berry says of the curriculum, “This farming program is exactly what most needs doing here.”
As we have done for decades on our Vermont campus, Sterling College provides in Kentucky a farmer education that links the liberal arts to farming, forestry, draft power, and good land stewardship. The curriculum combines the arts and sciences with community-based, co-operative economics and training. Students work with local farmers, economists, rural advocacy groups, and The Berry Center staff. The curriculum is designed to shape and inform a student’s farm plans. The Wendell Berry Farming Program is for students who are farming already or intend to farm as part of their livelihood. Although financial need is not a prerequisite for admission, we are especially interested in applicants who are Pell Grant-eligible or who are from groups underrepresented in farming. Typically, admitted students have a strong liberal arts and sciences background, a solid work ethic, a desire to farm, and a commitment to strengthening rural places.
Farm & Curriculum
The curriculum is focused on the survival of small and mid-scale farms. We study how to be profitable within ecological bounds. We work to cultivate a culture that supports farming that is inclusive, equitable, parity-based, and resilient. Our goal is unique in agricultural education: to interweave a hands-on, liberal arts, farming curriculum with a diversified mid-scale livestock farm using appropriately scaled mixed power systems (i.e., draft and combustion power). Our approach to farming is modestly scaled, humble, and attuned to rural places.
The farm, forest, waterways, and community are frequently our classrooms. We integrate our work and learning with The Berry Center’s initiatives: Our Home Place Meat, a burgeoning farmers’ cooperative; the Agrarian Cultural Center; and the Agrarian Library and Archive, documenting the Berry family’s legacy of rural advocacy.
The Berry Center provides for the Wendell Berry Farming Program a 200-acre farm located on Maddox Ridge Road near Port Royal, Kentucky. Dalton and Ann Brown owned, farmed, and lived on this land from 1964 to 2019. The farm has a history of careful use.
The land is ideally suited for grass farming and a diversity of livestock: beef cattle, sheep, draft animals, and pastured poultry, a combination that provides the most potential for farm income. The farm has 50 acres of woodland that benefit from a “worst-first” management plan, which will improve the health of the woods while providing lumber, a small income, and a classroom. The use of draft animals provides a low-cost source of power. The work of mules, oxen, and horses is combined with other forms of appropriately scaled combustion technology. The Wendell Berry Farming Program uses grass, livestock, and forest like three legs of a stool in a model that is biologically based and economically viable.
The farm serves as a research and community demonstration farm for The Berry Center’s Our Home Place Meat (OHPM) program, as well. OHPM focuses on good pasture management through ruminant production as well as on the development of viable, cooperative, parity-based markets. Wendell Berry Farming Program students learn about and participate in this program through the curriculum, work, and on-farm research.
With classes taught by Sterling faculty, the Wendell Berry Farming Program serves students who have a strong desire for an education that prepares them to “come home” to farm and build strong rural communities. Together, we take on pressing concerns:
- How can farmers afford to farm well?
- What will invigorate a local, restorative forest economy?
- How can we be good neighbors?
Learning to answer these questions is invigorating. We are engaged in the cultural work of bridging divides between farmers who are obliged to farm for conventional markets and farmers who are trying to establish regional economies. We’re working to close gaps between rural and urban, making clear how urban places depend on the health of rural places and vice versa. We are working toward inclusive communities by doing the difficult and often uncomfortable work of learning from our collective past.
Courses integrate disciplines because, as Wendell Berry says, “Disciplinary boundaries begin to lose their efficacy in truly interdisciplinary programs.” Three full-time faculty and carefully-selected part-time faculty lead this initiative. Dr. Ed Fredrickson steers the Wendell Berry Farming Program’s agroecology and livestock components; he brings to bear thirty years of work in rangeland ecology and holistic livestock management. Rick Thomas leads draft animal power systems courses, restorative forestry work, and farm operations. Dr. Leah Bayens serves as the program’s dean and guides the curriculum’s cultural and humanities components. A sample class list is below.
Program Costs & Financial Aid
Tuition costs are covered through a combination of philanthropic support from the NoVo Foundation, state and federal grant funds for which students may be eligible, and, for eligible students, participation in Sterling College’s Work Program. Students are responsible for any costs associated with room, board, books, and fees. Students and their families may elect to draw upon federal and private loans in order to pay for room, board, and fees. Sterling College will assist students in navigating this process. However, no student will need to use loans to pay for tuition. We believe this approach gives graduates better prospects to farm without having to take on heavy debt.
Description of Campus Life
The Wendell Berry Farming Program campus life is far from ordinary. Henry County is our classroom, and we take part in the life of this place in real ways. We forge meaningful connections to the neighboring community, just as we build lifelong relationships amongst students, faculty, and staff in Kentucky and Vermont. When students complete their time with the Wendell Berry Farming Program, they have a built-in network of friends, allies, helpers, and advisers.
We value students who represent diverse backgrounds in education, farming experiences, age, race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and economics. Each participant in the program brings inherent value and their own unique experiences. Working and learning together within a community, we learn inclusive neighborliness and obligation to others.
Students are supported by a Kentucky-based student life director and by a team of student life and wellness professionals on the Vermont campus. Life in the Wendell Berry Farming Program is warm, respectful, and supportive. We work hard, get dirty, and have fun.
Admission Criteria & Deadlines
Applicants must have a strong work ethic and demonstrate a desire to farm. Applicants should be both highly independent and self-motivated as well as thoroughly able to cooperate and work interdependently with colleagues, faculty, and community members.
Competitive applicants will exhibit outstanding capacity for:
- Conscientious self-management and decision-making
- Communicating information in timely and respectful ways
- Utilizing feedback for improvement
- Engaging in work and learning with a positive attitude
- Thriving in an intensive living and learning environment with a small cohort of students, faculty, and staff in a rural community
- Serving in ways that hone community and land stewardship skills
- Practicing situation-appropriate leadership skills
Academically, applicants should:
- Demonstrate holistic, critical, nuanced thinking and creative problem solving.
- Seek a liberal arts, interdisciplinary education delivered through a combination of experiential learning and discussion-based formats.
- Be committed to an agroecological and ecological agrarian education.
In terms of agricultural experiences, highly-competitive applicants will have farming, forestry, draft power, or other experiences that prepare them for the work of the Wendell Berry Farming Program.