Sweet Briar’s usual Founders’ Day celebrations to honor its history — 118 years of educating women leaders, to be exact — were enhanced today by a special visit from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and U.S. Senator Mark Warner. Along with Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Jewel Bronaugh, they were on campus to honor the College’s roots in farming, and to witness its inventive renewal.
Since 2018, Sweet Briar has installed a 20-hive apiary, two vineyards, a 20-acre wildflower meadow for pollinator habitat (made possible with support from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service under the NRCS EQIP Program) and, most recently, a 27,000-foot greenhouse. The ceremonial ribbon-cutting happened this afternoon.
First on the schedule was an invitation-only agriculture roundtable with local officials and farmers, as well as Sweet Briar officials, students and faculty. President Meredith Woo opened the event in Mary Helen Cochran Library with a nod to Sweet Briar’s long history of farming. Remembering former president Meta Glass and farm manager Jan Osinga, Woo said she had been pondering a question Osinga posed in his autobiography: whether Sweet Briar was a college with a farm, or a farm with a college.
“Agriculture is the most important industry in Virginia,” Woo said. Sweet Briar, she added, strives to be a “showcase for agriculture that’s sustainable and productive.” In addition, the College would make sure the curriculum is aligned to the enterprise. She also noted an interesting trend of women returning to agriculture. “Women are going back to the land,” she said.
Warner, who has his own farm in Fredericksburg — “not a terribly productive farm,” he admitted among chuckles from the attendees — was visibly impressed with Woo’s plans. “Thank you for your remarkable leadership and vision,” he said. Reemphasizing agriculture’s dominant role in Virginia, Warner stressed that it was important to figure out “how we do agriculture in the 21st century.”
Perdue agreed on all points. “I’m just enthused, excited and intrigued by the vision that you have here,” he said. “Agriculture really brings all of us together.” In that spirit, Perdue pledged an educational partnership with Sweet Briar that might yield internships or other opportunities.
Serving as moderator, Ring began the discussion by asking participants how their state and local organizations could work together. A Roanoke-area dairy farmer shared that in her partnerships with urban schools in Roanoke, she had found students hungry for volunteer opportunities in agriculture.
Next, Bronaugh noted statistics that revealed the percentage of women farmers in Virginia is higher than the percentage of women farmers nationwide — and that women are more interested in sustainability. Katie Frazier, director of external relations with the Farm Credit of the Virginias, was not surprised. She said she had witnessed a lot more engagement and initiative from women when training was offered. They also often have new ideas, she said. Perdue concurred. His experience in agriculture, he explained, had taught him that women had been the farm managers and bookkeepers for a long time, even if it was behind the scenes.
Expanding high-speed internet coverage to every corner of Virginia — a crucial aspect of modernizing any industry, including farming — took up part of the discussion before Ring brought things back to Sweet Briar. Virginia, she said, was just named No. 1 for business by CNBC again, thanks to its institutions.
“We have a great opportunity here at Sweet Briar,” said Lisa Powell, who will start in January as Sweet Briar’s new director for the Center of Human and Environmental Sustainability and an associate professor. “No matter what career they pursue, Sweet Briar graduates will learn about agriculture. We’re using our land resources not only to educate potential farmers, but to build a community of women who understand and can advocate for agriculture.”
Annika Kuleba ’22, a Girl Scout and environmental science major who has been involved in beekeeping for several years and grew up on a farm, said she is excited to continue her passions at Sweet Briar. She said she especially loves the collaboration that happens across programs, such as engineering and the arts, to advance the College’s beekeeping operation.
While attendees didn’t get to see the bees up close, they did get a view of the apiary at their first tour stop after the roundtable: the wildflower meadow just behind the train station next to the Butterfly Research Garden. Nathan Kluger, director of agricultural enterprises, gave a quick overview of Sweet Briar’s farming activities, followed by a few words from Powell about how those resources are used in and outside the classroom. The butterfly garden, of course, has been used for many years in biology classes and the apiary is now being used, as well. A soil quality-exploring robot developed by engineering majors for their capstone project this spring may soon roam the vineyards.
One of them was up next on the tour.
“This is a warp-speed vineyard,” Kluger announced, “probably the fastest vineyard installation in Virginia this year.” How fast? It took from March until July to install all of it. Four varietals — Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon — were planted and are now between 3 and 5 feet tall.
After a few quick photos, everyone piled back into the vans and headed for the day’s highlight: the ceremonial ribbon-cutting for Sweet Briar’s nearly complete greenhouse, located near Prothro Dining Hall.
Students, faculty, staff and alumnae had already gathered in front of the podium and on the dusty gravel road that leads down to the greenhouse. It is still a construction zone, after all.
Woo welcomed the community, noting that Perdue had told her that “this morning, he came as a guest, but this afternoon, he’ll be leaving as a friend. I’m so happy to have so many friends here.” Turning to the theme of agriculture, Woo recalled speaking with an alumna. “She told me: ‘Land is like a night flower. You give it a little love, and it will open up to you.’ So, we gave it a little love. And it opened up.”
Woo said that after starting the apiary, College officials thought, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right. So we added the wildflowers. … And then we added the most improbable venture: two vineyards. And then we added the greenhouse. … [Our dining services partner] Meriwether Godsey is quite possibly one of the finest in the nation, and clearly the finest in the commonwealth.”
Before grabbing a large pair of green scissors, Woo handed Perdue and Warner two pink “SBC” hardhats to wear. Then all three stepped behind the pink ribbon together, Woo in the middle, to make the greenhouse official.
In his remarks, Warner again praised Sweet Briar’s vision. “The idea of what you’re creating here with women in agriculture is extraordinary,” he said, adding how amazing Sweet Briar’s journey has been. “I commend the wonderful women of Sweet Briar for never being willing to quit.” On that note, he recalled mentioning to Woo six months ago that he “might be able to get Perdue to come to Sweet Briar.” Warner laughed: “Don’t ever say that to a Sweet Briar woman.”
Perdue joined Warner’s praise. “Your vision, an almost counter-culture view of women in agriculture … Your students will bring a different perspective to the future.”
During the media Q&A that followed, Warner summed it up perfectly: “Sweet Briar is putting together a new model for higher education.”