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Berry Center receives $2.5M grant for college ag program

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By Taylor Riley

The Berry Center, in New Castle, received some tremendous news last week for its Wendell Berry Farming Program (WBFP).
The center announced on Jan. 8 that it will receive a $2.5 million grant and a $500,000 fundraising challenge from the NoVo Foundation.
Supporters of Sterling College in Vermont and The Berry Center introduced the NoVo Foundation to the WBFP, according to Dr. Leah Bayens, Dean of WBFP, Sterling College.
In fall 2018, NoVo Foundation representatives invited Mary Berry, executive director of The Berry Center and President Matthew Derr to a meeting to outline the vision and needs of the program. Its mission for revitalizing rural communities through inclusive, community-based agricultural education received a warm reception.
In December, NoVo confirmed its gift to the program.
“As you can imagine, we were thrilled,” Bayens said. “This gift makes so much possible for our community. Students will bring new life to our place, all the while learning from and about our rich history.”
With this grant, Sterling guarantees that students will not pay tuition, giving graduates better prospects to farm without relying on student loans, according to the release.
“We’re grateful to the NoVo Foundation for sharing our vision of educating a next generation of farmers to farm sustainably and build prosperous rural communities and healthy regional economies,” said Mary Berry.
Debt can become a big stumbling block for young people who go to college, but the grant will allow the program to be run tuition-free, according to Ben Aguilar, Operations Director, The Berry Center. This initiative will help those who want to come back home or to make their homes in rural communities like Henry County.
“The WBFP graduates will be skilled farmers, considerate neighbors and committed community members,” Bayens said.
Aguilar hopes that the program will provide an opportunity for young farmers to have a “fruitful, happy and productive farming life without insurmountable debt preventing it.”
“We hope that for older farmers, in the near term, there will be a new supply of young, thoughtful, and hardworking allies to whom the traditions of farming can be passed on,” Aguilar said.
“For neighbors who want a more robust and thriving rural landscape and economy, we want to put young farmers into the world who will help to grow those things.”
Aguilar hopes the grant will be a turning point for farmers who are losing hope due to the struggling agricultural economy over the last century.
“It is long past time we start to turn that around, and this is one way of making that happen,” Aguilar said. “This program is so exciting for so many reasons, but the idea that we get to bring some of the best and brightest young people from all over Kentucky and the rest of the country to Henry County and have them learn from us about their own home places and their work is really heartening.
WBFB partnered with Sterling College in 2018. The Berry Center selected Sterling to offer its degree in sustainable agriculture in Henry County, home of Berry and the Berry Center.
“The farming program is exactly what most needs doing here,” Wendell Berry, whose farming family goes back for nine generations in Henry County, said in a press release.
The program had its first short course in August 2018 and will have another short course in forestry at the end of January 2019.
“We aren’t interested in taking over the town or the county,” Aguilar said. “We are interested in getting our students integrated into the fabric of the land here. We have excellent farms and farmers operating in Henry County, and we want our students to be able to learn from them just like they learn from their classroom studies.
“The work of farming is the center of this education and our partners at Sterling understand that and live that every day on their own campus.”
Admission will be highly selective, but students will be chosen without regard for financial ability to pay tuition, according to a news release. The program specifically calls for applicants from Kentucky.
Dr. Bayens said the plan is to start with 12 students in the program’s first year. Students will be third and fourth-year undergraduates. Applicants are aspiring farmers who want to practice ecologically-mindful and economically-viable agriculture.
The full-time curriculum will begin in fall 2019. For more information, contact The Berry Center at (502) 845-9200. For enrollment information, contact admission@sterlingcollege.com.
To catch a glimpse of the program, a free open house draft horse logging demonstration, a part of the restorative forestry short course, will be held from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2 at Tom and Janet Grissom’s Drennon farm. Contact The Berry Center for details.