After the death of her mother, Jennifer Palmer realized life was too short not to live on a farm.

Now 40, the adjunct art professor is on the cusp of completing the Wendell Berry Farming Program where she’ll receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in sustainable agriculture, and entering into a world of farming she knew little about just two years ago.

“After my mother passed from pancreatic and liver cancer, I was ready to take a break,” Palmer said. “I’ve been teaching college art for the past 15 years… and I saw this little advertisement for the (Wendell Berry) Center… I never saw myself going back to school again. But this is something I’ve always dreamed of in life and I decided that life is too short not to take the chance.”

So in August of 2019, Palmer and 11 other students became the inaugural cohort for the Wendell Berry Farming program – a program that provides the next generation of farmers with the necessary skills and resources to practice “ecologically mindful and economically viable agriculture on a human scale.”

As the first cohort class prepares to graduate, program officials look back on the program’s evolution, while looking forward to the program’s possible expansion.

Inspired by the lifework of farmer and writer Wendell Berry, the Henry County, Kentucky-based program provides students in the cohort with hands-on experience with cattle, sheep and draft power (horses and donkeys) with the goal that they will graduate from the program and come “home” to farm and build strong rural communities.

The idea started in 2011, said Leah Bayens, dean of the program. When Mary Berry, Wendell and Tanya Berry’s daughter, founded the Berry Center in Henry County, the farming program was one of the first initiatives the center took on, Bayens said.

“We all saw the really dire need for agricultural education that combined a liberal arts and agricultural curriculum designed to be economically viable,” she said. “Ultimately the program would encourage students to settle in some place and be committed to farming and to their community.”

Students in the program range in age from 22 to 40, and the majority of them – 9 out of the 12 – are women. Two of the students identify as people of color. During Covid, in-person classes shut down, but now all but one student have returned to the farm. That student, Bayens said, is currently at work on a working farm.

Originally, the center partnered with St. Catherine’s College until its closure in 2016. Since then, the program has partnered with Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont. A private college that is one of eight colleges in the Work College Consortium, Sterling’s curriculum focuses on ecological thinking through its majors in Ecology, Environmental Humanities, Outdoor Education, Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems.

The Berry program is tuition free, Bayens said, funded through the students’ work on the farm, grant money from the Noble Foundation of New York, and in conjunction with financial aid and scholarships. Students do pay for books, house and food costs, however.

“It was incredibly important to us that we find funding sources to provide a tuition-free opportunity, because it’s one way of minimizing the amount of debt that aspiring and young farmers, regardless of their age, are carrying – especially for those who are just beginning,” Bayens said. “Educational debt can be such a big barrier to starting a farm.”

Classes aren’t classes in the traditional sense, Bayens said. Instead of lectures, students work on the farm with other farmers who can teach them things books can’t.

“There are certainly discussion sessions which we try to hold outside as much as possible, just because we’re all kind of inclined toward being outside anyway,” Bayens said. 

“Sometimes, there might be a livestock class, with a more traditional lecture, but even then it’s participatory. We try to bring in as many people from the local community as we can, from farmers to businesses to elected representatives to community organizers and activists.”

For Palmer, the classes helped her to see what her farm would be like. For one thing, she said, she was pretty sure she would not be able to raise animals for meat. For another, she said, she realized she was interested in draft animals and draft power systems, as well as collecting seeds.

“I’ve always been into horses, but I’ve been terrified of driving (draft animals) my whole life. It was scary to be behind the horse rather than on them,” she said. “But working in the program has changed my mind. Hopefully, when I graduate my goal is now to start working with draft animals … I do a lot of animal rescue. So maybe I can retrain some draft horses for a future career.”

Palmer said she hopes to be able to share her new-found passion for seed saving with others.“I love the idea that I could grow stuff, save the seeds and then share them with people around me and create this new community,” she said.

The program has changed the way she teaches as well, she said. Currently, Palmer attends Berry Farming classes during the day, and then teaches at Bellarmine and other colleges virtually at night.

“I’ve never been to a school like that before, so it has been just the most amazing experience,” she said. “It’s taught me how to teach differently at this point. I’m really different in the classroom. And I think that’s the most amazing thing, a change to the way I see things now.”

Palmer said that while she only has 6-acres of land now, some day she’d like to have something bigger, something she can really farm on. In the meantime, she grows heirloom tomatoes, vegetables and herbs for tea in her garden. It’s an inspiration she got from her grandfather years before.

“My grandfather always had about an acre he would farm, and I remember that was the best cantaloupe and asparagus I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “That stuck with me. I’m still searching for a way to create those flavors. I’m hoping that maybe one day I can plant something that might make them taste like what he was growing…..”