By: Barbara Bowen
Virginia State Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS
If you teach a young woman about sustainable agriculture, she will become a more informed consumer. If you immerse her in an agrarian lifestyle with hands-on learning experiences, she just might change the world. At least that’s the idea behind an innovative approach to learning at Sweet Briar College.
While this might seem like an odd move for a women’s college, Sweet Briar is actually returning to its farming roots. President Meredith Woo surveyed the rolling hills that were once part of a working dairy and charted a path that would honor the college’s past while opening new academic and income opportunities for future generations of Sweet Briar women.
“The percentage of females working as primary agricultural operators is still relatively low,” said Woo. “As a women’s college with a farm, we are uniquely positioned to encourage young women to explore this option as a viable career path with good economic potential and opportunities for personal growth.”
The College is not only re-establishing agricultural operations on former working lands but is actively engaged in bringing these activities into the classroom. Professor Lisa Powell, director of the College’s Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability, is strategically integrating agriculture into the students’ daily lives through core courses like Sustainable Systems, which teaches the young women about the vital connections between the environment, cultures and economies. The farm’s proximity to the dining hall, dorms and academic buildings also ensures an immersive experience.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was a part of the Sweet Briar story when the land was a working dairy. In fact, Farmville Civil Engineering Technician Dennis Thompson worked with the farm as a Soil Conservation Service* employee. The agency became involved in the farm’s rebirth when administrators approached then State Conservationist Jack Bricker about their vision for revitalizing their land.
Rustburg District Conservationist Don Yancey helped them develop a conservation plan in 2019 to support a variety of new operations that included greenhouse vegetable production and an apiary as well as vineyards, orchards, livestock and poultry. The NRCS support team included Thompson and his wife Bonnie, a now-retired grazing specialist, former Private Lands Biologist Lorien Koontz, State Resource Conservationist Chad Wentz and Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations Kilby Majette.
Their plan primarily focuses on establishing pollinator and wildlife habitat, composting manure and plant waste materials, enhancing nutrient management and establishing a grazing system for future livestock operations. The school already has established 12.3 acres of pollinator habitat and treated more than 55 acres for invasive species control with financial assistance from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
As a big proponent of the team approach to conservation, NRCS welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Department of Forestry and the Virginia Forestry and Wildlife Group to actively manage Sweet Briar’s vast woodland resources. Sweet Briar already had a longstanding relationship with both entities and NRCS consulted with the Group’s Principal Wildlife Biologist Brian Morse to help develop the college’s wildlife plan.
NRCS State Biologist Jeff Jones is part of the agency team planning and designing shallow wildlife wetland areas (vernal pools) to be installed on the property. Recommended activities like tree/shrub and pine savanna establishment will also improve wildlife habitat.
Next steps include installing the necessary infrastructure to support potential future rotational grazing (watering system and fencing) on multiple tracts. Fields that once produced hay, corn and small grains are now planted in warm-season grasses and some will be converted to cool-season grasses to improve forage quality and variety.
“While the original plans for livestock development on campus have been put on hold, the Sweet Briar team will continue to install additional wildlife practices as part of their EQIP contract,” said Yancey. “Some of the ongoing land management activities will help improve fields for that next step and we will continue to explore opportunities to work with them on other stewardship projects.”
As one of the largest employers in the county, the small college with an enrollment of about 350 students is already making a sizable impact on their community. The ongoing expansion of their current agricultural enterprise will not only support an integrated multi-disciplinary educational program but also foster economic development in the region.
The 26,000-square-foot greenhouse currently supplies fresh vegetables for the campus population and local food banks and may soon expand operations with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. Honey collected from a 20-hive apiary is sold in the book shop and the 21 acres of vineyards will some day supply grapes for the state’s wine industry. USDA grant programs may offer a means to expand the outdoor classroom moving forward.
“NRCS is proud and honored to partner with Sweet Briar College in preserving the school’s farming heritage and preparing future leaders in the field of agriculture,” said Virginia State Conservationist Edwin Martinez Martinez, Ph.D. “We look forward to playing a part in their ongoing success story as the school grows its campus operation to support more environmentally sustainable food systems.”
*Original name of NRCS
On Dec. 1, WDBJ, the cbs affiliate station out of Roanoke, visited campus to talk with NRCS district conservationist Don Yancey and Sweet Briar professor Lisa Powell about the partnership. Watch the interview.