After starting The Berry Center in 2011, the first project we took on was what became the Berry Farming Program at St. Catharine College, founded by The Dominican Sisters of Peace in Springfield in 1931.
The urgent need for more farmers is clear if the problems of conventional agriculture are acknowledged and if we want a local food movement to become cultural change.
The kind of change that stabilizes rural communities; builds soil and stops soil erosion; and deals correctly with climate change, food instability, and the inequities of our current food system. The kind of change that will, in fact, stabilize urban communities.
We know that we have lost much of the local culture that passes knowledge and land from one generation to another. We must educate young and not-so-young farmers. We found our partner in this work at St. Catharine.
The sisters allowed us to link our program with theirs, thereby joining our work with something established and even sacred. St. Catharine will close July 31. It was a small college in a small community at home and satisfied with its place. But what better place for a program that seeks to teach young people to be content and useful at home?
Our students went to dozens of agricultural conferences, they spent countless hours serving communities, and they had meaningful encounters with environmental activist Vandana Shiva and the Prince of Wales. They did profound pragmatic research in sustainable agriculture and had internships on farms in Kentucky, Australia, India and Tanzania.
Our interdisciplinary curriculum links agroecology, community leadership, spirituality, agrarian history, environmental literature, gender studies, fine arts and business. Surely, these are significant accomplishments at a tiny, resource-strapped school.
We followed the lead of elders we know and trust. We heeded Wendell Berry’s call to upend the typical “upward mobility” major and established a major in “homecoming,” which, rather than leading students up and away, brings students down to Earth and back to their homes. And we were every day guided by the Dominican Sisters of Peace who have farmed and taught in Washington County since the 1820s.
The Sisters taught us — in joy and frustration alike — to practice the four pillars of Dominican life: prayer, study, ministry and community.
We will use what they taught us to deal with the loss of St. Catharine College, and what we have learned from them will help us move the program to the right place.
We will not forget.
Mary Berry is executive director of The Berry Center in New Castle; Leah Bayens is director of The Berry Farming Program in Springfield.