EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was first published in the October issue of the Register’s Madison Magazine.
The approximately 500 acres that make up Berea College Farm yields more than just produce, livestock, and plants from its rich soil every year.
According to educators and administrators, the true fruits of the nation’s oldest, continuously operated college farm are the students.
Behind the farm’s stately black fences, inside its balmy greenhouses, and among the pastures and livestock pens — educators see learning laboratories ripe for the taking.
“Really, we grow students here — we just use farm products to do it,” David Little, Berea College Farm Store Manager, said with a smile while taking a quick break from his kitchen duties. “It’s life skills we are teaching them. The students learn things here they won’t learn anywhere else… they maybe don’t always realize it, but they are growing too.”
Andrew Oles knows first-hand the value of Berea College’s unique outdoor classrooms.
He is a proud alumnus and received his bachelor’s degree in agriculture and natural sciences from Berea College in 2005. Now, he serves as the college’s current director of farm enterprises.
Oles said it was his experience as a student working on the farm that cemented his path in agriculture and informs the work he does today in keeping the college’s farm viable and productive for future generations.
“One of the amazing things about the farm is that it has remained. We celebrated 150 years of continuous operation last year,” Oles said while gesturing to a particularly picturesque piece of pasture.
The alumnus suggested the proximity of the farm to campus might play a part in why it has continued to play a crucial role at the college.
“It’s all within a two-mile radius to campus,” Oles explained. “A lot of other college farms are removed from campus because they simply don’t have the land resources Berea College has. It makes it easy for students and people in the community to come here, learn, and support it. Students can easily walk to greenhouses.”
Hallie Whitehead, a senior agricultural and natural resources major from Louisville, said she chose to continue her education at Berea College due to its strong and varied agricultural program.
“Berea had everything I was looking for,” Whitehead said.
In addition to her education, Whitehead said she has also garnered valuable work and leadership experience while at Berea as part of the farm’s student management team.
The college is one of seven federally recognized work colleges, and all students hold a labor position in which they work 10-12 hours per week in all areas of the college —including the farm.
“It really can’t function without the students,” Janet Meyer, Berea College’s Horticulture Manager, said of the student workforce impact. “They really are involved in everything; top to bottom. We have students help with everything from plumbing issues, to helping fix farming equipment, and mending fences to keep the deer out. They have a lot of responsibility.”
Meyer is also an alumna of Berea College and received her bachelor’s degree in agriculture and natural resources in 2004.
While stopping to give a few ear scratches to Clyde, the farm’s canine horticulture assistant, Meyer said the direction and innovation on the college farm has always been in student’s hands.
When she was student at Berea College, Meyer and her fellow farm workers campaigned heavily to allow produce grown by them to be used in the campus’ dining rooms.
That tradition has continued as every new crop of students bring their own ideas and goals to the farm.
“One of the big things recently that was student-led was the growth of succulents. During the pandemic, the students suggested we start growing more succulents as they were a popular item with their peers and the community. It was therapeutic in a way and something college students could take back to their dorms. A lot of community members were interested as well and the students held plant sales for them,” Oles explained.
Oles also noted the numerous changes Berea College Farm has undergone throughout its 150 years. Each generation of college farmers have navigated the limitations of the land and the fluctuations of the market. What makes the college farm unique is that each challenge, and sometimes failure, becomes yet another opportunity to learn.
“The farm itself grows and shifts with the students,” Oles remarked. “We used to have sheep here long ago, until that became unsustainable for the college and the region. We try very hard to make sure students are learning valuable skills that will be applicable to today’s world and their future.”
Students learn to adapt the farm to adversity, experiment with new techniques, and in doing so, take that knowledge with them out into the region.
In the late 1990s, when students became concerned about industrial-scale farming, the farm transitioned to raising certified organic crops. Students also led the transition from feedlot-finishing of cattle to grass finishing and ended the practice of hog confinement.
While Whitehead said great satisfaction can be found in growing, nurturing, and harvesting produce and plants from seed — the skills she learns while working on the farm coincides well with what she is learning in her traditional classroom setting.
“A lot of times, I will have already learned and done on the farm what I’m being taught in the classroom. Or, I’ll take what I learn in the classroom and apply it here,” Whitehead said.
Meyer said the flow between indoor and outdoor learning spaces creates a nice transition for students — especially agriculture majors.
“It is a laboratory. The students learn about something in the classroom and then have the opportunity to do the actual physical labor and it solidifies it for them,” Meyer said. “They learn what it really takes to put the ideas into action and to problem solve when things go wrong.”
It’s not just agriculture majors that benefit from time spent among the crops and livestock.
Xavier Khera, a junior sociology major from New Mexico, said he is taking full advantage of his classroom studies and his work experience on the farm.
“It’s almost like having a double major, without having to actually have a double major,” Khera explained. “I find my time spent working on the farm very valuable. Not only am I learning practical skills and gaining work experience that I can use for a resume. (This model) just gives you more opportunities. You can make the most of it and I really enjoy it.”
Meyer said she has had student workers from numerous majors find value in time spent at the farm.
“I had a student who was a child and family studies major and they do a lot of nutrition classes with that. She told me once that all CFF majors need to work here so they understand what actually goes into producing food,” Meyer recalled. “While it might not always complement their particular majors — they can still learn how to grow food and tend a garden — which is very valuable.”
Farming and agriculture also has ties to social justice issues, Meyer noted.
“I think farming might be the most undervalued work in our society,” she said. “People have become detached from how food gets from the farm to the table — what it takes and the work and planning involved. We have had restaurant chefs come here and bring their staff here to see what goes into getting the ingredients. It is getting better, the pandemic has put more focus on it, and some workers in the industry have been able to negotiate for higher pay.”
“What we do is extremely valuable. We feed people. You can’t live without it,” Meyer added.
Both Meyer and Oles stress the importance of recognizing agricultural work as one with dignity.
“There is dignity in feeding people,” Oles noted.
That dignity is also passed on to the livestock on Berea College Farm.
“I tell people a lot, that our livestock have really good lives, and one bad day,” Oles said.
Oles said the farm has also tried to maintain and foster relationships beyond the campus to the Berea community.
“Food ways have ancient traditions here. We’ve made steady progress in making the farm community accessible, I think that is one thing that has contributed to our lasting success,” he said.
The Berea College Farm works with several restaurants in Berea and the surrounding area by providing produce and proteins that eventually end up on menus.
The farm also harvests flower seeds for an outside company, while providing crop starters for other area farms.
The relationship is truly communal in nature.
Regional farms, such as Lazy 8 Stock Farm in Paint Lick, provides Berea College Farm with strawberries to grow each season — while others supply produce for the Berea College Farm Store.
Little said he views the college farm store as yet another stop on the wheel of progress at Berea College.
“We are part of this circle. Students spend all this time growing produce and taking care of the livestock and then it makes it way here to the farm store. Then, it goes on again along the circle to our community in the form of prepared food,” Little explained.
Farm store student workers also get important lessons in food management, preparation, and customer service.
“We have students learning everything from preparing baked goods and sandwiches to working with me in the butchery. I cure all our ham and make all the bacon here,” Little explained.
The farm store student workers also learn the value of using resources.
“We try to waste very little,” Little explained. “I’ve got students deboning chickens right now. The chicken will be used for things like the chicken salad, while the bones are used to make our stock.”
Little, who also farms on his own property, said he enjoys watching students hone their gifts and skills while at the farm store — blossoming among the work.
Sometimes it takes time.
The farm store manager recalled watching a former student struggle. The student was suspended, but she persevered through adversity and eventually made came back to Berea College and graduated.
“She stuck it out. She could’ve folded, but she pushed through. She already has a good job opportunity lined up, because she kept at it,” Little said.
For the Berea College Farm crew, cultivating successful adults is the ultimate goal.
“You spend four years invested — growing and tending — and then one day, we hope, our student’s hard work bears fruit. That’s the true harvest, here. Our students and graduates,” Oles said.