Sustainable Agriculture students at Sterling College do more than just study local foodways and the working landscape; they roll up their sleeves and create an agricultural ecosystem that is innovative, inclusive, natural, and just. Some students come to Sterling College without ever having been on a farm or in a garden. On the other end of the spectrum are students who have traveled the world, learning how to farm organically, through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
One such student is Genevieve Gorjance ’18. Originally from California, she graduated from high school and took a gap year before entering college. “I had an existential crisis of ‘what will I ever do that will be useful to humanity?’” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, everyone needs to eat.’” She looked for a hands-on experience in ecological farming and hit upon WWOOF.
Genevieve also wanted to work on her Spanish language skills, so she looked at a WWOOF experience in Latin America. She decided on Chile “because it had a variety of different climates,” but decided ultimately to stay on one farm to go through an entire growing season and to get fully fluent in Spanish.
Unlike many WWOOF experiences that last up to several weeks, Genevieve stayed on one farm for eight months. “I wanted to stay long enough to become an asset to the farm and to learn a few things,” she said. Her stint in Chile was on a typical farm for that area, she reported, with crops of several types of potatoes, lots of garlic, a variety of berries, lettuces, and herbs, as well as cows, goats, and sheep.
After her WWOOF episode, she went back to the U.S. and to a typical liberal arts college, but she felt that her education was lacking. There were a lot of environmentally-minded people at her college, but the campus didn’t have sustainable agriculture.
“I really missed getting my hands dirty,” she said, “and actually doing farming instead of talking about it.”
She continued, “The WWOOF experience made me realize what I was passionate about, and that led me to Sterling.” Genevieve is a Sustainable Agriculture major at Sterling, and hopes to minor in Draft Horse Management. As Sterling is one of only eight federally-recognized Work Colleges, all students have a job on campus; Genevieve is on the Livestock Crew, taking care of Sterling’s turkeys, chickens, sheep, and pigs.
She laughed, “If we ever do a potato harvest here [at Sterling], I’m like a machine!”
Harley Meyer, Admission Counselor at Sterling College, had a WWOOF experience that brought her to Vermont, to farming, and ultimately, to a new career.
Harley had graduated from college in 2011, and was working in her hometown of Chicago in “a really dismal office job.” She quit that to work in a garden center; Harley loved it, and decided she needed more plants in her life. She had a friend who was living in southern Vermont; armed with that information and little else, Harley went onto the WWOOF website and applied for a position at Blue Heron Farm, in the Champlain Islands, near Burlington.
“I packed up my car,” Harley recalls, “with two pairs of pants, and a shirt, and a book, and some boots” and drove for three days to Vermont.
Harley was at Blue Heron Farm from June to the end of October; she started out by living in a tent on the farm but eventually moved indoors. Blue Heron was mostly a vegetable operation, but had some laying hens and sheep. “What really stuck with me was the vegetable work,” Harley recalled. Before her experience at the gardening center, Harley had no experience in farming. “I think WWOOFing gave me a really approachable way into the farming community,” she said. “Having no résumé, no farming skills. I had deadheaded cabbage starts for approximately one month [before Blue Heron Farm].”
As she built skills, Harley decided to explore employment on a farm outside of the WWOOF program. She applied for, and got, a job at Butterworks Farm in Westfield. It was during Harley’s time at Butterworks that she met alumnus Ben Brown ’12, who couldn’t stop talking about his Sterling experience.
“He kept saying how amazing it was and how much he missed it,” she said. Harley was intrigued, and soon was at Sterling to study for a second BA. Ultimately Harley decided to take her self-designed major, Human Geography of Seeds, to a master’s program instead, and in the meantime started working at the college as an Admission Counselor. “Within two semesters, I got really specific about wanting to study seeds and seed saving, thanks to a talk that Gary Paul Nabhan had given at Sterling College,” she said.
Both Genevieve and Harley see clear connections from their episodes at WWOOF farms to their studies at Sterling.
Genevieve thinks that Sterling College is “a natural continuation” of her WWOOF experience. “I just plugged right in!”
“Having the Work Program, having the farm right there and integrated as part of the curriculum” will be of interest to other WWOOF alumni, she thinks. “It’s wonderful to have that [as part of] your college education.”
Harley is able to point out the two different styles of experiential learning and how they complement each other. “Through WWOOFing, I learned what it was like to work on a really fast-paced, high-pressure, high-production farm, [and] the pace of work was very real,” she recalled. “The farmer didn’t have time to slow down and tell me the reasoning behind her farming choices.”
Harley continued, “But when I came to Sterling I had that real awesome, great experience, and now I had time to slow down and get into the ‘why’ and get into the technical ‘how.’ And also, I had time to think through more thoroughly who I wanted to be in a community.”
WWOOF alumni who want to continue to put their hands and minds to work to reshape the future of farming can learn more about Sterling College’s Sustainable Agriculture program and Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems.