Our Sustainable Future: Sustainability

Sweet Briar’s historic 2,840-acre campus provides a learning laboratory for sustainability, stewardship and cultural and natural resource management. By capitalizing on these unparalleled resources, we will integrate the science, public policy and ethics of sustainability throughout curricular and co-curricular programs and campus operations. The students will experience the pleasures of outdoor life and understand the paramount importance of wellness and sustaining themselves—and from there on, their families, their society and their future.

The central catalyst for this effort will be the College’s Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability. The center facilitates curriculum, research and community engagement activities to improve environmental outcomes, economic development, equity and quality of life; and supports the College’s natural environment and agricultural operations.

Over the next five years, working with the center, we will endeavor to make Sweet Briar’s academic and co-curricular programming, as well as its campus operations, hallmarks for sustainability by doing the following:

(a) Learning through Agricultural Enterprises

Sweet Briar’s agricultural enterprises—the apiary, pollinator habitat, vineyards and the 26,000 square-foot, four-season greenhouse—are among the most visible aspects of our sustainability culture.

Students are involved in many operational aspects of the big greenhouse (versus the smaller one by Guion). They take classes in it. They do projects in it. They raise crops from seed to harvest in both soil and hydroponics systems. They organize the distribution and sale of produce, including for campus dining, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription program, the farm stand market for campus and surrounding community residents and donations to area foodbanks.

In the next five years, we will ramp up hydroponics operations in the greenhouse to enable the year-round production of large quantities of produce for campus dining and commercial partners. This will require a consistent labor force of students (when available) and college employees to ensure production goals are met in a timely fashion. Soil bays not used for teaching will also need to be focused on cost-effective crop selection and management.

To further expand these activities, we may also consider augmenting existing agricultural spaces. (Currently, faculty teaching courses in the greenhouse have no nearby space to store classroom materials, lab equipment, or chemicals and must transport them back and forth to Guion or the Train Station.) The addition of a fenced outdoor area (2-4 acres) for outdoor crops may promote greater student involvement, attract the general public (to places such as a sunflower field or a pumpkin patch) and increase capacity to support campus dining services and sales.

The vineyards, as they enter their second year of production, will have Sweet Briar employees and students doing more of the growing activities and maintenance work. As some point, we need to make the capital decision regarding whether to extend the production cycle into winemaking and then retail hospitality operations.

(b) Interdisciplinary Curriculum on Sustainability

Studies in sustainability are not limited to environmental science, biology, engineering and other STEM classes. Sustainability is the focus of one of the core courses (CORE 140: Sustainable Systems) and it is covered in courses ranging across the humanities and social sciences, but further integration will require faculty training and development across disciplines.

One interdisciplinary example is the new certificate program in Leadership in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, launching in spring 2022. Over the next five years, the certificate program may transition into a minor program and eventually become a major in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Launching the major will require continued offerings on climate change, water systems/hydrology and new courses in soil science, animal agriculture, animal physiology and viticulture, necessitating an addition of one new faculty member with expertise in either agriculture, environmental science, hydrology or climate change.

(c) A Culture of Wellness

The agricultural enterprises enable us to improve the dining experience for our community. For a residential college this is an important consideration as dining can serve as a tool for retention and recruitment of students. Over the next five years, we will establish and promote our dining services—in collaboration with Meriwether Godsey—as one of the best among the nation’s colleges. Dining services will be characterized by fresh, delicious, healthy food served in welcoming, homey spaces and a variety of dining options.

Sweet Briar’s wellness program will utilize more than the usual resources of athletic teams, playing fields and a fitness and athletics center. It will deploy our abundant natural resources, including the campus’ trails, hills, meadows and lakes, along with our outdoor program. We will encourage students and employees to get outside and improve signage for the campus trails and develop a trail map.

It is hoped that the above efforts will have an ameliorative impact on the current “mental health crisis” among young people today, as described by the surgeon general, and which is exacerbated by the pressures of social media and the ongoing pandemic. (We will also expand on-campus mental health services provided by Horizon Behavioral Health and offer wellness programming in areas including nutrition, study habits and prevention of substance abuse or self-harming behaviors.)

(d) Campus Sustainability

We are in the process of developing a campus-wide sustainability plan addressing issues of energy, land use and other elements of environmental stewardship. We hope to decrease reliance on fossil fuels through broader adoption of geothermal systems in certain areas of campus, a move to decentralized heating and cooling systems and the use of solar-generated power (see part II. Capital and Energy Infrastructure).

Improved waste management, increased recycling and the expansion of composting practices will also make important contributions to a sustainable campus. We transitioned from separated to single-stream recycling in 2020 but we need to maximize recycling outcomes and provide training to physical plant, housekeeping teams, students, campus residents and visitors. With the aid of an external grant, we have initiated a diversified composting operation that is diverting food waste at Prothro to generate resources for enhancing soil health to support food production on campus. We hope to expand the efforts to include landscaping waste and horse manure in addition to food waste. Improved signage throughout campus will also aid recycling and composting efforts.

Students have been vocal about the need for food waste composting on campus, and the afore-mentioned initiatives will provide them with another opportunity to build leadership skills and obtain hands-on experience in sustainability practices.