Wendell Berry Farming Program’s first applicant and graduate reflects on lessons learned

Learning is a sneaky business. As you add skills and knowledge an unexpected thing happens. Ask Rachel Breeden who was the first applicant to the two-year Wendell Berry Farming Program that started in 2019 in New Castle, Kentucky. She said, “When I first started, I was all about skills. I wanted to drive the teams and use the saws and learn about vegetable production. And then when you get in there, your world just turns upside down. I learned a lot more than I thought I was learning.” 

The Kentucky program is inspired by Wendell Berry, one of the country’s treasured writers, environmental activists, and farmers. Vermont’s Sterling College is the sponsoring institution. They have been a leader in sustainable agriculture, outdoor education, and environmental humanities. On its website, the Wendell Berry Farming Program of the Sterling College offers students “a tuition-free curriculum focused on ecological management of livestock, pasture, and forest using draft animals and other appropriately scaled mixed power systems…who intend to farm.” 

After four years, Breeden’s college studies in music and business left her unsatisfied and ultimately without a degree. She went to work at an insurance office, got married, and worked on the family farm not far from New Castle, Kentucky where the Berry Center is located. She said she, “got hooked up with the bookstore at the Berry Center and I was following them and Sterling on social media.” She wanted to attend Sterling but that did not happen for lots of reasons.
Rachel Breeden
But when the program came to Kentucky, she applied. “I was their first applicant,” she said. When Virginia Berry, granddaughter to Wendell Berry, told Rachel, she was astounded. “That was one of my fears going into school. I was 26 and married. And I had been farming a little while. And I was a girl. In my head I thought they were all going to be these young guys who were like twenty-something and be like kids in college,” she said. But they weren’t. In fact, they were an eclectic, welcoming cohort. 

Earning the degree was, at first, important, but then something happened. Gaining the knowledge and skills superseded all else. It seemed radically different from pursuing her original degree in music.

Rachel with her oxen team that she raised from calves. She made the yoke as a course project.She says, “The big thing I wanted to get out the program was the draft horses and the sourdough bread making. The draft horse instructor moved to Kentucky to build this program with the rest of the faculty. So, they were doing Draft Animal Power Systems which is my minor and I majored in Sustainable Agriculture. But you learn a bunch of stuff along the way.” One project was to build a yoke for an oxen team. She learned how to use the tools, how to carve, and how to train the animals. She raised two oxen—Oscar and Finch—from calves and they live and work on her farm. 

The cohort selected Breeden to be their speaker at their 2021 graduation. She was nervous and laughed because Wendell Berry spoke before her. She laughed and commented that it’s not often that Wendell Berry is your warmup act. 

Rachel's favorite draft horse IvyShe was a bit surprised when she reflected on her time in the program and what she learned. She says, “You become more sensitive to the world, and you become smaller in the world. The more you learn, the smaller you become and that grows exponentially. You walk a little lighter. You live a little quieter. You start listening and watching. And it becomes not all about me and production and the work; it becomes about the killdeer that’s fussing at you for disturbing her nesting in the spring or it becomes about all of the things you can’t quantify that make people farm even when the numbers don’t line up.”

Her words sing with eloquence and rhythm. But she had a great teacher. 

In her current work at Turner Farm, she stresses some lessons from the Berry Farming School for home gardeners. She notes:
  1. People focus on what’s going on above the ground. They get very focused on the plants, and they forget about what’s going on underground. Pay attention to the soil. 
  2. Plant something brand new, something you’ve never tried before or plant something that’s not edible and it’s beautiful and you want to do better. Try something new. 
  3. There are no monocultures in nature. Look at the template that nature gives us. 
  4. Pay attention to pests and weeds. They can be pretty good teachers. 

What she learned from The Wendell Berry Farming Program has elevated her thinking about her place on the planet, her influence, and her legacy. She said, “Learning is much more than knowledge or skill acquisition. It’s about taking you to a higher place.” 

Want to find out more? Visit these links: 

Sterling College

Wendell Berry Farming Program (includes a video of Rachel Breeden)

Turner Farm

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Read more articles by Chuck Keller.

Chuck Keller is a former educator and columnist working now as a community organizer for social and environmental concerns. He enjoys coffee, conversation, bicycling, kayaking, hiking, gardening, and relaxing under a good tree.