Willits Food Systems Summer Fellows gain a bounty of experience

Willits fellows work in the greenhouse
Willits fellows (L to R) Lily Terwilliger ’24, Bijou Barry ’23, Kate Kotany ’23 and Ella Leichty ’22 work in the greenhouse

In 2018, Sweet Briar embarked on an ambitious plan to make agriculture and sustainability a cornerstone of the campus and student experience. By leveraging the unique resources of the College’s expansive campus, we have brought our agricultural lands back to life. These operations include a 20-hive apiary, two vineyards, a wildflower pollinator meadow and a 26,000-square-foot greenhouse. Cultivating women leaders in agriculture, conservation and natural resource management has now been made possible by forging connections between campus agriculture and curriculum through the Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability

The Willits Food Systems Summer Fellows program was developed thanks to the generous gifts from Laura Willits Evans ’79 and The Willits Foundation. The Willits Foundation has been a generous supporter of the College since 2015. Laura, who owns a farm and vineyard in Umbria, Italy (poderecalzone.com), has been so impressed with President Woo’s vision for fully utilizing the extensive campus and with Professor Lisa Powell’s sustainability plans, that she wanted to support the students in their work and research over the summer.

During the inaugural year of our new fellows program, students worked all summer combining hands-on experience with opportunities to pursue diverse endeavors related to agriculture, natural resources management and food systems, including research, community engagement, advocacy and communications. 

Danielle Saunders '23 in the Community Garden
Danielle Saunders ’23 tends to the Community Garden

“It was so wonderful to watch the Willits fellows grow into leadership roles, especially in the greenhouse and community garden,” says Lisa. “The fellows took both individual and collective ownership not only of caring for plants as they grew, but also of our weekly markets and community supported agriculture subscription program. By the last few weeks of the summer, they had learned to identify what a growing area or market setup needed and took care of it.”

“Each week, I saw students innovating,” Lisa reflects with pride. “For example, after I demonstrated how to do a particular practice in managing or maintaining the hydroponics system, students would inevitably come back a few weeks later with ideas about how we could improve the process so that it fit more efficiently into their workflow. I loved hearing their ideas, and we almost always implemented them! So many moments like these over the summer demonstrate the value in an extended, immersive experience where students not only have the opportunity to learn new skills, but to use those skills long and deeply enough that they have time to synthesize and build out from what they learned.”

Ella Leichty '22
Ella Leichty ’22 harvests hydroponic lettuce

The students experienced all of the unique agriculture enterprises available on campus. Some enjoyed the work in the greenhouse while other were fascinated with the apiary. “My favorite part of the program this summer was working with the hydroponics in the Greenhouse,” says Ella Leichty ’22. “I really enjoyed the plant care and upkeep as well as learning the engineering and setup of the hydroponics area.”

“This fellowship has offered me an experience that has definitely helped me gain a deeper understanding of how agricultural activities work and the types of sustainable and agricultural options to look for in my future career,” says Kate Kotany ’23.

Lisa expands on the benefits this fellowship has for future careers: “For those who are looking to enter careers right after college, this summer experience shows that they are ready for full-time work either in a field directly related to agriculture and the environment — such as in a greenhouse or vineyard operation, with a nonprofit conservation organization or with a government agency like the USDA — or for work in another sector that needs the types of skills they developed and practiced this summer, like collective problem solving and anticipating what a system will need to thrive well in advance of when that need manifests.”

Lisa also notes that when other greenhouse operators visit and see the work our students are doing, they state that they would be eager to hire graduates with this kind of college experience.

“For those who are looking at graduate school,” Lisa continues, “many of the skills they honed this summer will help them succeed. Graduate school requires students to be resilient, to adapt quickly to changing conditions, to communicate effectively, and, increasingly, to work on teams. The Willits fellows built capacities in all of these areas.”

When applications open for next summer, information will be posted in the Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability.