Sterling College Prepares Farmers to Save the World

Photos courtesy of Sterling College

Photos courtesy of Sterling College

By: Pamela Hunt

In the fifty years since the first class graduated from Sterling College, this small school in Craftsbury, Vermont, has positioned its students to succeed by imparting skills and values that are difficult to come by in many other traditional higher learning environments. In particular, concern over today’s reality of rampant consumerism and environmental degradation has led Sterling College to forge a path along a less traditional route to education, one that ensures its students can make a difference in the world and enjoy themselves while doing it.

A New Initiative

In June 2019, Sterling College embarked on an updated strategic initiative to reflect its concern over the impact that higher education is having on the world’s biodiversity and climate change, declaring it a climate emergency. The president of the school, Matthew Derr, called traditional colleges and universities “co-conspirators” in this crisis due to their promotion of “extractive economic growth and consumption.” If this addiction to financial gain continues, he said, schools will “rob graduates of the livelihoods they promise.” The solution, according to Derr and the college, is to “offer the education [graduates] need to contend with the ecological crises ahead.”


Although Sterling has consistently focused its programs on learning about and interacting with the natural environment—it was the first college in Vermont and third in the United States to fully divest its endowments from fossil fuels, a decision made in early 2013 and quickly enacted —the college goes further with its new vision. The ten-year initiative contains steps to focus the school’s mission on advancing ecological thinking and action and calls out the forces that are leading to a climate emergency, including dependence on fossil fuels, destruction of biodiversity, and promotion of harmful agricultural practices.

Wendell Berry Farming Program

The issue of harmful agricultural practices served as the impetus for the college to launch the Wendell Berry Farming Program (WBFP), which will welcome its first students in the fall of 2019. This collaboration among Sterling College, the NoVo Foundation, and The Berry Center brings students to Henry County, Kentucky, halfway through their four year degree (it welcomes both Sterling students who have complete freshman and sophomore years, and students from other institutions).


The Berry Center, founded in 2011 in Henry County, continues the work and message of Wendell Berry’s writings on the need to advocate for farmers and strengthen rural communities to reverse the decline of the world’s agricultural health. The goal of the two-year collaborative program with Sterling is to endow a new generation of farmers with the skills and knowledge to continue the community-building Berry espoused when graduates return to their home areas.

The new collaboration allows Sterling to provide expanded opportunities for its students without the need for growing its footprint in Vermont. Sterling College faculty will teach hands-on courses that reflect Berry’s and other agrarians’ philosophies about farming and building strong rural communities. Areas of study include holistic livestock husbandry, US farm and food policy, small business management, and draft animal power systems. Upon finishing the program, students will receive a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Agriculture from Sterling.


The program is extremely competitive, with space for only twelve students, who must have already completed two years of post-secondary studies.


“We’re most concerned that folks who participate in the WBFP intend to farm, have a strong work ethic, are committed to rural places, and seek an educational experience that melds the practical and liberal arts,” says Leah Bayens, Dean of the program. 


The program received nearly 150 applicants this year. Sterling’s reputation as a forward-thinking institution played a big role in attracting students’ interest. The fact that the program is tuition free, thanks to support from the NoVo Foundation, certainly plays a part as well. This financial aid allows students to focus on jumping right into their local agrarian communities after graduation without the worry of paying back hefty student loans, and is a major strength of the program. The first class of students in the program will begin in the fall of 2019, and the next class will enter in the fall of 2021.

School of the New American Farmstead

For students not ready or not interested in making a two-year, full-time commitment, Sterling is also home to the School of the New American Farmstead (SNAF), which offers workshops and classes, as well as various certifications. This continuing education program began in 2015 and is underwritten by two Vermont businesses that share the college’s vision: Chelsea Green Publishing and Vermont Creamery. Philip Ackerman-Leist, a farmer, author, and educator with decades of experience, most recently at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, became Dean of SNAF in October 2018. He was drawn by Sterling’s reputation. “The launch of the School of the New American Farmstead had me green with envy. . . or more aptly put, envious of the green education Sterling had decided to offer,” he says.


The courses cover food production, farming, carpentry, and other rural arts. They are geared toward non-matriculated students, although full-time students are welcome to enroll. Among the twenty classes offered this summer and early fall are The Art of Fermentation with the king of all things fermented, Sandor Katz; Regenerative Design with renowned sustainable architect, Shelly Pottoroff; and Blacksmithing Essentials taught by Lucian Avery, a Vermont-based blacksmith.


This year, Sterling offered its first SNAF opportunity abroad, at the Brunnenburg Castle and Agriculture Museum in northern Italy. Led by Ackerman-Leist and award-winning dietician Sharon Palmer, the course covered sustainable food systems in the southern Tirol area of the Italian Alps and work that has helped to preserve the region’s cultural traditions and foodways.


Changes on Campus

The Wendell Berry Farming Program and School of the New American Farmstead are two examples of initiatives at a school that rigorously integrates tradition with innovative thinking and fosters an excitement for evolving to match emerging needs among its students.


Sterling’s Craftsbury campus reflects the style of an old-time Vermont farming town, with homes trimmed in white clapboard and roomy front porches. But behind these folksy facades are modern learning facilities where students can acquire the skills necessary to make a difference in today’s high-tech world. For example, thanks to a grant from the Robert B. Annis Foundation, the college is transforming part of Simpson Hall, one of the buildings near the center of campus, into the Annis Center for Ecology, with redesigned laboratories so students can gain real-world lab skills to match the knowledge they’ve gained in the field.


Sterling College represents a true collaborative learning environment. Its students get out and learn by doing, both on campus in Vermont and around the world. And the college itself grows by constantly innovating, whether through launching new programs or by attracting new investors to create state-of-the-art learning environments. By adhering closely to its mission, Sterling College is reaching new populations of students who will help to preserve and better the world for years to come.


Pamela Hunt is a writer and editor, curious traveler, and amateur foodie who lives in Burlington, Vermont, with her husband and two dogs.

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