Sweet Briar College’s landscape has always been an important part of its identity, but in the last few years, stewardship of its natural and built environments has become a priority.
The College has undertaken a number of agricultural enterprises on campus, including an apiary, a greenhouse and a vineyard, all of which are helping to bring back to life the school’s heritage as a farm. The grapes grown at Sweet Briar will help fill a gap in the demand for Virginia grapes among vintners in the commonwealth. The greenhouse will allow the College to engage in sustainable food production, providing produce not only for the College community, but also for other institutions in the region, particularly those who have a relationship with Meriwether Godsey, Sweet Briar’s catering partner. These agricultural efforts will also include curricular components for students, create alternative streams of revenue for the College and provide economic development opportunities in Amherst County and Central Virginia.
In celebration of those efforts and of Earth Day, the College hosted several high-profile visitors on Tuesday, April 23. The delegation is a tangible part of Sweet Briar’s efforts to develop public-private partnerships. The group included Jim Hubbard, the under secretary for natural resources and environment at the United States Department of Agriculture; Bettina Ring, Virginia’s secretary for agriculture and forestry; Jack Bricker, the state conservationist from the Natural Resources Conservation Service; Don Yancey, the district conservationist from NRCS; and Lorien Koontz, the district biologist for NRCS. The group of state and federal officials met with members of the Amherst County Agricultural Committee as well as Sweet Briar’s agricultural and natural resource experts.
During lunch, Hubbard and Ring spoke to students and faculty about the complexities of natural resource management and the role of women leaders in the field. They encouraged students who are interested in issues of agriculture and conservation to start at their local levels and make connections with people who care about the same issues.
In the afternoon, the group took a tour of Sweet Briar’s campus and had discussions about the role the College can play in stewarding its heritage agricultural lands, increasing the number of women leaders in resource management, and being a catalyst for economic development in Amherst County. The group also talked about funding opportunities for the College in the form of state and federal grants and how Sweet Briar’s vision coordinates with the priorities of the state and federal agencies. The firsthand experience helped these important partners understand the assets Sweet Briar has and what an effective partnership with the College might accomplish.
Developing a robust partnership with the commonwealth allows Sweet Briar to draw on technical expertise at the state level, reducing the College’s costs as it ramps up its agricultural and conservation efforts. And because agriculture is Virginia’s biggest industry and state officials have a vested interest in helping it grow, there are plenty of funding opportunities at the state level for the College.
“We have a chance to be a model for both the commonwealth and the nation,” says Lea Harvey ’90, director of corporate and foundation relations at Sweet Briar. “These efforts will advance our students’ education and lead to financial sustainability and strength for Sweet Briar. It also demonstrates our commitment to the immediate community and that we’re ready to be a good neighbor in Amherst County.”
In fact, the partnership with the county is already growing. On May 11, the county will host a farmers market. Sweet Briar students provided input about the business model that will help the market be a success. The Amherst County Fair, which returned to the county last year after a 40-year hiatus, was held on Sweet Briar’s campus and the College will play host to the fair again later this summer. In April, Amherst County High School students visited campus during their Day of Giving to work with Sweet Briar volunteers on the College’s trail network.
The visit from these key officials was just the beginning of Sweet Briar’s Earth Week celebration. In the evening, students, faculty, staff and families came together in the Quad for the second annual farm-to-table dinner with food grown in our local region and prepared by Meriwether Godsey. Following dinner, a spirited panel discussion took place in Memorial Chapel as part of the “At the Invitation of the President” series.
Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83, Amy Tabb ’01 and Eliza Walbridge ’72, alumnae experts in agricultural and conservation issues, spoke about their paths from their college days at Sweet Briar to professional success and the future of women in agriculture and natural resource management. They also spoke about how technology can support agriculture, and how Sweet Briar’s STEM programs are a wonderful opportunity for the College to help advance that technology.
Tabb knows well how to integrate agriculture and technology. She grew up on a family dairy farm, studied math, computer science and music while at Sweet Briar, and now works for the USDA as a research agricultural engineer. She says technology can help increase the pace of developing cultivars that better tolerate environmental stress. She’s also seen some technology that helps harvest fruit, like apples, while doing less damage to the produce and making the harvesting safer.
Like Tabb, Walbridge grew up on a farm. She studied math at Sweet Briar, before switching her major to art, but her career has featured computer programming and piloting aircraft. These days, she’s working to restore her family farm to health so it will be viable well into the future. She says farming can teach young women practical skills and that having agriculture on campus can provide opportunities for scientific study, research about combatting climate change and to learn how to work with nature instead of against it. She says farming and agriculture can be a catalyst for writing and art, as well.
Hutson, who has had a long career in natural resource conservation and land management, now serves as the College’s vice president for alumnae relations and development. Her particular skill set means that she can really affect change at her alma mater and she’s passionate about doing just that.
“I want Sweet Briar to provide leadership and excellence to address local problems,” Hutson said. “Our students are going to become leaders in these fields and we’re going to build public-private partnerships that can be a model for other institutions around the country.”