HENRY COUNTY, Ky. — The Wendell Berry Farming Program, a tuition-free college degree program that started in 2019, graduated its inaugural cohort of 12 students at the Henry County Fairgrounds in Eminence, Kentucky, on May 15.
The farmer and author Wendell Berry delivered the commencement address, a stirring assessment of the consequences to our country when millions of people have moved from farms to urban areas in a single lifetime. Sharing his belief in the fundamental laws of nature and human nature, Mr. Berry reminded graduates “if the land is to be used by people, then it must be used by people who love it. Who are culturally prepared and instructed to use it lovingly. And whose cultures, therefore, are sustained economically.” He went on to add, “I believe that you, along with all the rest of us, are called to take good care of our country. Which in the foreseeable future will mean both using it well and, so far as we can, healing the wounds we have given it.”
The graduates plan to follow Berry’s advice: Some will return to family farms to revitalize the land, manage forests, grow crops and raise livestock using sustainable methods. Others will apply their education to establish new enterprises that focus on connecting people with food and farms.
The Wendell Berry Farming Program is a partnership between The Berry Center of New Castle, Kentucky, and Vermont’s Sterling College, a small liberal arts college committed to using education as a force to advance ecological thinking and action whose faculty teach the program’s courses in Kentucky. Graduates earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems from Sterling College.
“The Berry Center’s generational, local understanding of this place and its people has been critical to the success of this program,” said Sterling President, Matthew Derr. “It’s so clear that we share a sense of trust, friendship, and commitment to community with all of those here in Kentucky.”
The first graduates of this unique degree program are also proof that innovating the way education is funded can set a new standard for the future. Students do not pay tuition for the Wendell Berry Farming Program thanks to grant support from the NoVo Foundation and numerous gifts from other mission-aligned foundations and individuals. Students are responsible for the cost of room, board and fees. The revolutionary no-tuition model helps graduates to live and farm in rural communities without the burden of college debt.
“Without this program, I would never have felt empowered enough to pursue farming as a career,” said Lizzie Camfield of Campbellsburg, KY, whose graduation plans include starting her own family farm and continuing the small-batch fermented hot sauce business she established as her capstone senior project. “I love Kentucky, but I didn’t consider it a place where I could make a life and a living, especially farming. Now I have a whole different perspective and I treasure it more than ever.”
The second cohort of students in the Wendell Berry Farming Program will arrive in Henry County to begin their education in late August.
— Wendell Berry Farming Program at Sterling College
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