When St. Catharine College signed a proclamation on Feb. 27, 2012, with The Berry Center, located in New Castle, Ky., hopes were high about what that partnership would produce.
The opening of the fall 2012 school year confirmed this optimism as SCC launched the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program, housed in a newly-minted Department of Earth Studies. Dr. Leah Bayens is heading the department and coordinating the Berry Farming Program. She is designing the curricula for an interdisciplinary baccalaureate degree and a minor in sustainable agriculture, with a target start date of fall 2013.
According to Bayens, The Berry Farming Program is founded on the urgent need to foster a sustainable future through vibrant rural communities and ecologically-oriented farms. In this way, the program fits into a widespread, international, sustainable-farming movement, though Bayens said that St. Catharine’s curriculum will be unlike any other in the state and even the country because it thoroughly merges the sciences and the arts. In fact, it uses the humanities as its critical starting point so that literature, composition, sociology, and cultural geography (for instance) will play central roles in students’ understandings of their relationships to nature.
“We’re in the vanguard of sustainable cultivation studies,” Bayens said. “When (Berry Center Executive Director) Mary Berry Smith and I sat down to talk about the Berry family’s vision for this program, she told me she was thinking of something totally unique, something that hasn’t been done. I’ve looked at other sustainable agriculture programs, and I even taught at one at UK, and even the most innovative schools across the nation that have interdisciplinary components do not foreground the cultural side as a driving force as much as this program does.”
The Berry Farming Program will, Bayens said, use cross-disciplinary learning to equip graduates for careers in sustainable farming and marketing, scientific research, community leadership, and environmental arts. It will provide four primary areas of study: sustainable crop production, environmental sciences, the humanities and rural leadership. It will embed academic coursework with immersion experiences like internships and fieldwork.
“We will eventually have a campus facility where students can get their hands dirty—their space for cultivating, studying soil systems, and formulating designs, as well as reading, writing, and expressing themselves in a variety of genres,” Bayens said. “However, it won’t just be for students in the program; we see this as a campus-wide movement. Until we have that facility available, we will be partnering with many farmers in the community who can provide internship opportunities for our students.”
Bayens also stated these opportunities would provide close interaction between students and farmers.
“One of our primary goals with this program is to bridge as many gaps between the colleges and the community as we possibly can,” Bayens said. “The Berry family is very intent on making sure there is a mutual production of knowledge. They want to make sure things that happen in the classroom don’t simply stay in the classroom or in the college; they want those lessons to have a life outside the college in the community. Our students and members of the local communities can reap mutual benefits with this program. Local farmers have practical experience, and they know the land. We want students from St. Catharine to have conversations and lived experiences with those folks.”
Bayens indicated that one way the program will forge these connections is by working with SCC’s Department of Community and Regional Studies. The rural leadership branch of the Berry Farming Program will “deal specifically with issues that make small towns and communities function well and maintain sustainability in terms of design, marketing, business and health care,” said Bayens. “It will allow students to explore the possibilities for incorporating some of the Berry values into their vocations in innovative ways.”
For the next year, Dr. Bayens will be using many of the same principles to develop the program’s curriculum.
“I’m establishing partnerships across college departments and the community,” she said, “through an advisory committee that will help integrate the good work that had already been established at St. Catharine and in the local community. I’ll also be establishing a faculty base geared toward designing and delivering interdisciplinary courses that merge the arts and agriculture, stewardship and community engagement.”
The short-term plans also involve recruiting the first wave of students, and Bayens has been working closely with the SCC admissions staff to spread word to traditional and non-traditional students, as well as future and current undergraduates.
In addition to her duties as the chair of the Earth Studies Department, Bayens will also be an assistant professor of English, having earned her doctorate in English from the University of Kentucky in Dec. 2011. Her areas of specialization are 19th century American literature, as well as environmental literature.
“I took a very interdisciplinary approach to my research and into the development of my Ph.D., and that was based on studies of the environment, ecology, culture and the literary side of how people relate to the world around them,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do work that was interdisciplinary in nature and had experiential elements that allowed both me and my students an immersion-oriented education. I think this is exactly the program, as well as the department, that will foster this vision.”
The work Dr. Bayens did on her dissertation traces the historical, cultural and literary foundations of sustainable agriculture literature, including writings by Wendell Berry in addition to works by other notable authors such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and novelist Ruth Ozeki.
“Wendell Berry has been the beacon for sustainable agriculture for over 50 years,” Bayens said. “I’m looking at this popular movement towards local farms, farmers markets, ecological agriculture and the momentum of those ideals fueled by those literary works. There are so many people now concerned about the quality of our food sources and the viability of local farms.”
For Bayens, to study and research Wendell Berry’s work is one thing, but she is honored to now be able to work directly with the Berry family.
“I keep pinching myself,” she said. “I started studying Wendell Berry when I was in high school. I remember when my mom, rather unceremoniously, handed me her copy of “The Unsettling of America” she used in college. It had all of her notes inside, so I was able to add my own notes alongside hers. It’s a really valuable book to me because it shows this was something my mom and my family has valued. This isn’t about being in the presence of celebrity or about the acclaim of this family, but it’s about sitting down and having a conversation with people who are on the same page as you and how you can do something progressive that has the potential to make a difference in the ways our communities function.”
The Berry Farming Program appeals to more than just those who are working the soil day after day.
“Wendell Berry’s work has been influential in so many different circles,” Bayens added. “He reaches out, not only to traditional farming families, but also to those who are part of the urban agriculture movement, home gardeners, people interested in environmental peace and justice – all people who are interested in creating and cultivating circumstances that are good for people and for the world in which we live. It’s a unique vision for a program that builds on what some astounding people have done in sustainable agriculture.”
For further information about enrolling in or supporting the Berry Farming Program, contact Dr. Bayens at firstname.lastname@example.org or 859-336-5082 ext. 1255.