Deep Roots: Farming at Sweet Briar

VineyardJan Y. Osinga worked at the Sweet Briar farm for more than 41 years. In a memoir written in 2009, he said he was often asked, “What is a dairy farm doing at a college?” Jan’s response was always the same: that the farm was there first.

Driving around campus after his retirement and the end of dairy operations, Jan observed that “old and former barns are still a silent witness of the past, part of the Sweet Briar Farm History, while the open fields, once planted in hay, corn and small grain, will remain a constant reminder of the past.”

No longer a thing of the past, this year, farming will return as an active part of College life. In setting her strategic vision for the College, President Meredith Woo identified the campus as a distinctive asset and stewarding its land as everyone’s responsibility. She began asking questions about how to build an artisanal agricultural community that would have a purposeful academic component.

After consulting with the College’s Sustainability Committee, President Woo asked Lori Husein, vice president for finance and administration, and Nathan Kluger, director of agricultural enterprises, to implement new farming activities that would weave sustainable agriculture into the fabric of Sweet Briar’s campus. These efforts have two primary functions: to provide academic opportunities for Sweet Briar students and to produce alternative streams of revenue for the College. But more than that, Sweet Briar wants to honor its agricultural legacy and create chances to connect with residents of Amherst County.

Sheep on campus, c. 1908

And the timing couldn’t be more perfect, with more women taking on agricultural businesses than ever before. “As women run an increasing number of the nation’s farms, Sweet Briar will be poised to recruit and educate women who will be the agricultural and natural resource leaders of tomorrow,” President Woo says. “Moreover, by reactivating heritage agricultural lands, the farming operations will provide us with critical sources of auxiliary revenue, and will help ensure that we fulfill our responsibilities to be wise and proper stewards of our natural environment.”

Sweet Briar is Growing

In March, the school’s new agricultural operation buzzed back into life, when the bees in the hives that were installed last summer began foraging for pollen after a long winter. The first steps for the worker bees involve feeding the queen so she’ll ramp up her egg laying. In Virginia, early spring bees typically feed on flowering trees and as you read this article, our bees are venturing out to seek maple tree pollen and nectar. Bees need both nectar and pollen to be healthy, and a healthy hive should produce 35 to 40 pounds of honey in the first year — and maybe twice as much in later years. Later this summer, you’ll be able to purchase honey harvested at Sweet Briar in the Book Shop.

Nathan Kluger onsite at Sweet Briar earlier this spring

The College’s agricultural efforts will be a hive of activity this spring and summer. Near the apiary, Nathan is overseeing the planting of a meadow, which will be home to wildflowers and native grasses. The meadow will take approximately three years to mature, but already significant changes are taking place. “This pollinator field is a healthy buffer space that supports a variety of natural fauna like butterflies and humming birds,” says Nathan. “It’s a vast safe space, not only for the bees whose hives are nearby, but for a wide array of pollinators that keep our plants healthy. Of course, it also contributes to the beauty of Sweet Briar’s campus, which is one of its most valuable assets.”

Something else visitors to campus will be able to see very soon? Grapevines. Earlier this spring, Nathan and his team broke ground on what will become 20 acres of vineyard. They took surveys and conducted soil testing so they could make nutrient adjustments and ensure that the vines would grow strong and healthy. The team built trellises and now vines are being planted. “In the first year, we’ll train the vines,” says Nathan. “We should see the first yield in about three years with maximum yield in five.” Ultimately, there are about 60 acres of vineyards planned.

Making good use of the level spot that was home to the lower tennis courts, a greenhouse is being built. When construction is complete later this summer, the College will begin planting crops that its food services partner, Meriwether Godsey, will use to feed students, faculty and staff in the dining hall. When Sweet Briar is not in session, the hope is that Meriwether Godsey will be able to use the crops for its other local customers, ensuring a steady market for the College and plenty of farm-to-table produce for Meriwether Godsey: a win-win for everyone.

Watercolor rendering of the planned wildflower meadow and vineyard

Nathan says an orchard site has also been identified near the community garden, so fruit trees may also be in Sweet Briar’s future. In addition, there may be opportunities for livestock like cattle and sheep to take up residence on campus. Even farther out? Perhaps the College might use its grapes in its own winery. But no matter what additional agricultural endeavors the College engages in, says Nathan, “we have to operate within a regenerative model that treats the land that has been entrusted to the College in a responsible manner, and there has to be an academic overlay for everything we do.”

Agriculture and the Classroom

The faculty are already looking at ways to bring the farm into the classroom.

In fall 2018, just after the apiary had been installed, Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink — in collaboration with Brooke Savage, the beekeeper from Elysium Honey — began offering a Saturday afternoon class in beekeeping for students. Those who completed the course will be prepared to take the Apprentice Beekeeper exam from the Virginia State Beekeepers Association Master Beekeeper Program. Next year, Linda and Brooke will provide another course for beginners, plus more advanced opportunities for students who completed the first course, and students will take on more responsibility at the apiary as they gain more proficiency.

There’s also ample opportunity for Linda to use the bees to teach insect biology. Last fall, students in BIOL 111: Introduction to Organisms spent an afternoon lab period learning about honey bee biology and collecting data on bee foraging behavior. One senior biology major conducted research in the apiary in the fall. In Linda’s three-week course this spring, students will do projects associated with the bees.

bees and student
Girl Scout and environmental science major Annika Kuleba ’22 brought several years of beekeeping experience to Sweet Briar, where she has been able to continue that passion.

Linda also plans to use the meadow extensively. “I’ll be teaching insect biology next year and having the meadow close at hand will be a wonderful asset. I’ll probably use it in ecology, too,” she says.

Indeed, the opportunities to link academics to the College’s agricultural efforts are limited only by the ingenuity and creativity of the faculty.

CORE 140: Sustainable Systems, will introduce the concept of sustainability by teaching students about the interconnectedness of environmental, cultural and economic systems. The need to test the soil for nutrient levels offers an opportunity for biology and chemistry students. Engineering students can develop tools to help the College monitor its fields. In fact, this year’s Capstone students are engaged in something similar already, though they’re doing it at UVa. Business students could learn to develop plans for agricultural businesses. The greenhouse also provides an opportunity for on-site learning.

Raina Robeva, director of the Center for Engineering, Science and Technology in Society, sees collaborative opportunities for her center and the Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability. “The plans are for a smart farm where modern technology compliments and assists with land management and use. This will be fertile ground for collaboration between the STEM center and the sustainability center,” says Raina. Carrie Brown, director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts, is equally invested in developing ways for her center to take advantage of the growing agricultural efforts at the College.

The Bottom Line

There are complex financial issues involved with agriculture at Sweet Briar, from startup costs to long-term revenue. According to Lori, startup costs will be funded by private donations and public and private grants. The College is actively pursuing these private dollars, as well as grant opportunities at the federal, state and local levels. It is also looking into developing corporate partnerships.

President Woo, Bettina Ring and Jim Hubbard
President Woo (right) with Jim Hubbard, under secretary for natural resources and environment at the United States Department of Agriculture; and Bettina Ring, Virginia’s secretary for agriculture and forestry during Sweet Briar’s Earth Day celebrations

The Commonwealth of Virginia has prioritized agriculture as a driver for economic development — a sound decision since agriculture is the state’s largest industry. As a result, the state has developed incentive programs for agriculture-based economic development. Of course, economic development is particularly important to Amherst County and the region around the College. Sweet Briar is the fourth-largest employer in the county, so it can provide real development opportunities to the county and its residents. That makes Sweet Briar a good investment for the state, and has the added benefit of building up the College’s relationship with the county and its residents as an active part of the county’s economic growth.

In fact, the College is already working closely with the Amherst County Agricultural Committee to partner with them on growing agritourism in the county.

At the local level, Sweet Briar is already working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the United States Department of Agriculture, to mitigate invasive species and prepare the land for these new endeavors. At the federal level, there are larger Conservation Innovation Grants to be had as part of the farm bill. These grants drive public and private sector innovation in research conservation, helping to develop next-generation agricultural and conservation tools, technologies and strategies. The NRCS is also committed to supporting historically underserved groups — like women — providing a real opportunity for funding at Sweet Briar. Ultimately, the efforts funded by the NRCS boost production and improve water quality, soil health and wildlife habitats.

vineyards
A staff member surveys the land near the green barn for the installation of grapevines.

“This is not just a ‘build it and they will come’ thing,” says Lea Harvey ’90, director of foundation and corporate relations. “We’ve done research to know where our access points to market are. And we have an opportunity to give back to Amherst County to drive economic development and be a demonstration site for best practices in agriculture. All of that will help us leverage grants and partnerships with government agencies and private sector companies that provide smart farm technologies.”

Sweet Briar will use these external funding opportunities to minimize the impact to the College’s bottom line in the short term and maximize revenue in the long term. “To be sustainable,” says Lea, “these agricultural efforts must provide unique auxiliary revenue opportunities and we need to start investing in them.” Lori agrees. “We have a ready market,” she says. “There is demand for the products we can produce here.”

food
A greenhouse on campus could make farm-to-table meals — like this special dinner Meriwether Godsey served for Earth Day — a more frequent occurrence.

As such, Nathan is tasked with ensuring that Sweet Briar’s agricultural enterprises are revenue-centric, starting with the apiary. Because the College has its own hives, as well as a contract with nearby Elysium Honey to process the honey, Sweet Briar should see a modest profit from the apiary soon.

Likewise, the vineyard will produce revenue because there is a big market for Virginia grapes. “Virginia is the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the country and in order to produce a Virginia wine, vintners must use a minimum of 75% Virginia grapes,” says Nathan. The state currently has a shortage of grapes and Sweet Briar will help provide a solution to that problem. “There is a lot of upside to using Sweet Briar’s many south-facing slopes to grow grapes,” says Nathan.

In addition to creating alternative streams of revenue, adding agricultural learning opportunities may also open some avenues to recruit students who are interested in farming or related industries. After all, what better place to educate women to be leaders in agriculture than at Sweet Briar, where there is a long history of farming and a renewed commitment not only to developing women leaders, but also to stewarding the land left to the College by Indiana Fletcher Williams?

Jan Osinga
Jan Osinga at Sweet Briar

Certainly, there are similarities between Jan’s farm and the agricultural enterprises Sweet Briar is undertaking today. For one thing, back in the days of the Sweet Briar dairy, Jan wasn’t afraid to try new things. And, like Nathan, Jan was charged with building a farm that would create revenue. But one thing is different: Jan thought the farm should have been a more integrated part of the student experience. “I always thought it a missed opportunity that the academic part of Sweet Briar never took great advantage of incorporating the farm and dairy in some way into their academic curriculum,” he wrote in his memoir. We’d like to think Jan would be pleased to see the College bringing farming back to campus with new products and new ideas, and that he’d be happy to know that the farm will have a place in the curriculum.

Yes, agriculture has deep roots at Sweet Briar. The latest efforts are part of a new chapter in farming at the College, one President Woo anticipates will have a lasting, positive impact. “We have a significant inheritance in the beautiful land. It is ours to keep and ours to honor,” she says. “I’m proud of what we will accomplish as we merge our agricultural legacy with our commitment to the future of the liberal arts and women’s leadership.”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 Alumnae Magazine.