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‘A guiding light.’ Why Vermont students are farming in Wendell Berry’s backyard.

A day on the farm with Wendell Berry’s draft horses

The Wendell Berry Farming Program is part of Sterling College, an environmental school in Vermont. Students are in Henry County, Kentucky, learning about sustainable farming.
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The Wendell Berry Farming Program is part of Sterling College, an environmental school in Vermont. Students are in Henry County, Kentucky, learning about sustainable farming.

On a hot September day in Henry County, four college students readied two massive Percherons, Felix and Jed, for a lesson in horse-powered agriculture. Grayson Weltyk braided Jed’s long white forelock out of his eyes, as Ally Dick and Dashiell Jorgensen carefully placed leather harnesses on their backs.

They murmured to the horses and each other, quietly, and almost reverentially, because these aren’t just any horses, and it’s not just any leather. Both belong to author and agrarian Wendell Berry, and when you’re a student in the Wendell Berry Farming Program, the idea of working with his materials and in his spirit, is, well, beyond your average school day.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to do this, to know Wendell’s hands had been on these lines,” explained draft horse instructor Rick Thomas. “This is a craft and it takes time to learn it.”

The Wendell Berry Farming Program is up and running again after a two-year hiatus, precipitated by the unexpected closing in 2016 of St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the program was based. This time, however, the program’s home will stay in Henry County, even if it’s new collegiate partner is at Sterling College in Vermont.

“My mother (Tanya Berry) always said the Berry Farming program should be in Henry County,” said Mary Berry, the director of the Berry Center in New Castle, which is devoted to her father Wendell’s agricultural and literary legacy, and oversees the farming program. “I agreed but I didn’t want to start a school myself. My mother always turns out to be right.”

After St. Catharine’s closed, Mary Berry looked at schools all around the country where the farming program could be housed. Then she was contacted by Sterling College President Matthew Derr.

Sterling College is a small school in Craftsury Common, Vt., that describes itself as an environmental college dedicated to stewardship and sustainability. Majors include ecology, environmental humanities and sustainable agriculture. Derr pitched the idea of a partnership in which a college already teaching many of the principles of Wendell Berry could work in his backyard.

Sterling is also, like Berea College and Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky, one of eight federally recognized work colleges, which emphasize work and service as part of their education.

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Sterling College student Dash Jorgensen worked two draft horses, Jed and Felix, Thursday morning on Den Berry’s Henry County Farm as part of the college’s Wendell Berry Farming Program. Sterling College, located in Vermont, has 12 students in Henry County studying various aspects of farming, including working this morning with two of Wendell Berry’s draft horses. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

“I thought, there’s no way I’m going to partner with a school in Vermont, that makes no sense, but when Matthew came to the center, I felt a kind of understanding from him about what we were trying to do,” Mary Berry said.

In particular, she said, Derr understood the program’s emphasis on scale, replicating the agriculture that used to dominate America’s rural areas. It’s somewhere between a small, organic farm and large-scale agriculture. Even organic farming has quickly moved into large-scale production, leaving family farmers behind.

Mary Berry’s grandfather, John Berry, helped create the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative, which controlled pricing and ensured profit to farmers. She’s trying to recreate that kind of cooperative with Home Place Meats, a cooperative for local livestock farmers.

“That kind of thinking has disappeared,” Mary Berry said. “We want the prosperity scaled out, not scaled up for just a few.”

She and program director Leah Bayens sealed the partnership, and starting for two weeks this month, the first Wendell Berry Farming Program class at Sterling College headed down to the steamy climes of Kentucky from Vermont. For the past two weeks, 12 junior and senior students have traveled to different farms in Henry County during the morning and worked on classes at the Berry Center.

Eventually, the program will be expanded to most of a student’s junior and senior years, and Kentucky students will be able to apply as well. Students who finish the program will receive a bachelors in sustainable agriculture from Sterling.

Sterling President Matthew Derr said the college has a long history with Wendell Berry, dating back to publication of “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” in 1977. Wendell Berry was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and became a fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013.

One of Wendell Berry’s friends was teaching at Sterling when St. Catharine’s closed and suggested Derr get in touch with Mary Berry.

“We knew about Wendell’s passion for place-based education, and the idea this would be a program in Vermont never crossed my mind,” Derr said. “We were much more interested in connecting with his legacy and history in Henry County.”

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Sterling College student Prathana Shrestha worked two draft horses Thursday morning on Den Berry’s Henry County Farm as part of the college’s Wendell Berry Farming Program. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

On Thursday, the Sterling students were at Mary’s brother Den’s farm, which backs up to the “home place,” the farm where her grandfather and uncle lived and has been in the family for generations. Wendell Berry lives on his farm in Port Royal, about five miles down the road, where, famously, he still farms with draft horses, not tractors.

Rick Thomas is a sustainable agriculture professor and the draft animal educator at Sterling, and he carefully watched as students walked the two harnessed horses around the field, preparing them for a day when they might attach the horses to a plow. (President Derr is helping care for Sterling’s draft horses while Thomas is out of town.)

“This is a great opportunity for Sterling to scale out what we’ve been doing,” Thomas said. “Wendell Berry has been a guiding light for farmers since he began writing and younger farmers are discovering him for the first time.”

The Sterling students are now using their Henry County experience to figure out how they’ll use their degree in post-graduate life.

Dashiell Jorgensen, for example, fell in love with horses with his first Introduction to Draft Horses class.

“I like the oxen too, but horses are my thing,” he said. After graduation, he plans to go to farrier school, then figure out where horses fit in his professional life.

Prathana Shrestha grew up in Nepal, and is newer to horses, but as Nepal is primarily agricultural, she hopes to work with non-profits to help farmers. Ally Dick is studying agricultural anthropology, “the culture that surrounds agriculture,” as she explained it, and has been reading many of Wendell Berry’s works on that topic.

“Now I’m really interested in reading his fiction,” she said. “I see similar challenges facing farmers in Kentucky and Vermont.”

With the program underway, Mary Berry and Bayens will turn their attention to fundraising, both to help more students join the program, and to set up a kind of micro-loan program to help young farmers get off the ground.

The ultimate goal, Mary Berry admits, is ambitious: “I would love that while we’re teaching young people and working on an economy to help young farmers, we can help the re-population of rural America with people who value where they are.”

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