Tuition-Free Farming Program Is Inspired by Wendell Berry

The 2-year course teaches ecological management of animals, pasture, and forest.

woman with horse

Sterling College

The Wendell Berry Farming Program offers an education unlike any other. It teaches students in their third and fourth year of college how to farm in a way that's kind to the Earth, using a unique curriculum that focuses on "ecological management of livestock, pasture, and forest using draft animals and other appropriately scaled mixed power systems." 

Located on a 200-acre farm near New Castle, Kentucky, and administered by Vermont's Sterling College, the highly competitive farming program accepts only 12 applicants per year, all of whom must show a desire to farm and a commitment to strengthening rural communities. 

Perhaps most unusual is the absence of tuition; the fee is covered by grants, and students need only pay for room, board, and books. The school says this "gives graduates better prospects to farm" without having to rely on loans. 

students in field

Sterling College

The curriculum is inspired by the work of American writer and farmer Wendell Berry and includes courses such as Holistic Livestock Husbandry, Agroecology, and Literature of the Rural Experience. Students work alongside staff and neighbor farmers, foresters, and rural leaders, learning how to grow food and manage animals.

Students graduate with a liberal and practical arts farmer education, which, as program dean Dr. Leah Bayens told Treehugger, includes learning how to afford to farm well: 

"This kind of program is essential for the land and community. Being 'profitable within ecological bounds' translates to being able to afford to farm well. In turn, this means being able to live with and from a place using a land ethic of reciprocity, not just extraction."

An alternative farming model that lowers costs and makes better use of what is at hand is badly needed, Bayens said. "The dominant model of farming, based on the goals and objectives of agribusiness, has left farmers trapped in a failed system with no alternatives and no way out." This program, by contrast, uses grass, livestock, and forests "like three legs of a stool to form a model that is biologically based, economically viable, and able to make a difference for community interdependence."

oxen ploughing field

Sterling College

When asked if this type of farmer training is needed more than ever nowadays, Bayens was hesitant. While it's undeniable that "extractive economies have come to dominate so much of the global landscape and mindset," and that the depopulation of farming communities has made it harder than ever for farmers to pass good land stewardship skills on to subsequent generations, the need for such training is not a novel concept:

"This kind of farmer training has always been necessary and has historically emerged (and continues to) in familial, community, and informal educational relationships across the globe. We look to these saving remnants as models that we are folding into a formal education curriculum, necessary at this time to help fill the gaps. We like to imagine a day when formal training programs like this are unnecessary because the culture is providing it."

Applications are open until March 15, 2021, for a September start to the Wendell Berry Farming Program. Students need to have completed two years of undergraduate studies prior to applying, though not necessarily in a field related to farming. They'll graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems from Sterling College. More details here.