Nathan Kluger spends his days at Sweet Briar College overseeing agricultural projects spread out across the college’s more than 3,000 acres.
From an apiary to wildflower pollinator meadows to at least 20 acres of vineyards and other projects, Kluger is working with the college to provide new revenue streams as well as “redefine student experiences.”
“[Sweet Briar] is a business that students get to experience and to participate in. Really the key component of that experience here is not just that you’re sitting in a classroom, but that you’re able to have a hands-on experience in your education. Not just with engineering, which is one of our key factors here, but also agriculture, and all that that portrays with business,” Kluger said.
Around spring of last year, Kluger was asked to introduce Sweet Briar College President Meredith Woo to beekeeping, which he has done for more than 25 years.
Woo said when she met Kluger, he “identified himself as a farmer, but he’s as far from a usual impression of a farmer you might have.”
“He’s a farmer who loves land and what grows on it, but also he is a highly educated person,” Woo said. “The impact [he has on the college] is obvious in the transformation of our campus and reinvigoration of agricultural enterprises. He brings dedication, intelligence and openness to the projects that we have all embarked on.”
Kluger said the college administrators mentioned students expressed interest in greenhouses, vineyards, honeybees and wineries, all of which he has experience handling.
Lea Harvey, the college’s director of foundation and corporate relations, said the institution is “very fortunate” to have Kluger’s “energy, vision and willingness to work with us as we build the next phase of Sweet Briar’s future.”
“I think he has a terrific entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit,” Harvey said.
“I find him to be very responsive and willing to be creative. ... He’s really able to articulate a vision in a compelling way that resonates with prospective donors and partners. He’s just willing to participate in this new community that he’s landed in, and I think we’re really fortunate because of it.”
Kluger said one of the biggest projects in the works on campus is a 27,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse that will be able to feed the school’s students, faculty and staff as well as provide sustainable produce to other small institutions through Lynchburg-based Meriwether Godsey, the school’s food service provider.
“This is really going to add a level of panache I don’t think a lot of campuses are able to offer, at least as this scale,” Kluger said.
Woo said Sweet Briar wants “to be an example” in Central Virginia “on how to do artisanal agriculture that’s modern, forward-looking, scientific, sustainable and precision based.”
“Agriculture is something that Sweet Briar has always done. The task before us is to understand how to do it in ways that are different and relevant in our century. We think we have found the formula, and Nathan Kluger is being very impactful in that regard,” Woo said.
Kluger said he never thought he would be a college administrator, “not in a million years.”
“I am a hardcore entrepreneur through and through. I come from an entrepreneurial family. We raise our own businesses, sales, that’s my experience growing up,” he said.
Kluger recalled being 6 or 7 years old and ringing the cash register at his grandfather’s country store in an historic town in southern Indiana on the Ohio River.
His grandfather and his father both were entrepreneurs.
“Once you taste it, it’s hard to sit at a desk and say, ‘I’m satisfied with my life,’” Kluger said.
But in the time he’s been with Sweet Briar, he said he’s enjoyed “working with some of the most intelligent, most innovative minds” he thinks he’s worked with in his life.
“I have the opportunity to work with people that I think are some of the most crucially critical thinkers I’ve ever come across as far as the administration is concerned, and I truly value that,” he said.
Harvey said Kluger is “helping to build a stronger Sweet Briar” through his leadership of the college’s agriculture enterprises and collaboration with faculty members and administrators on the stewardship of the institution’s land.
After graduating from Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business, many people were getting jobs at big corporations, but that didn’t appeal to him, Kluger said.
So he moved to China, where he met his future wife. He taught English as a second language and lived there until a form of atypical pneumonia called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, hit the country in about 2002.
Back in Indiana, Kluger said he and his wife started a meadery operation, which produced honey wines, or meads. He also helped farmers initiate farmers markets in the region to have more venues to sell his product.
Kluger moved to Central Virginia from Indiana in 2017 after his meadery operation was “sucked up by a half-mile tornado.”
He and his wife decided to move to an old historical estate in Central Virginia, an area with “a lot of untapped potential.” They own Rockmill Farm in Lowesville near the Nelson County line.
Kluger said he’s been asked why he decided to be a part of a school that rebounded from a failed closure attempt in 2015 and the answer is simple: “there’s always risk in everything you do.”
“You can quantify that risk and say, ‘This is a big risk or bad risk,’ or, ‘This is a good risk or small risk,’ but I don’t look at it that way,” Kluger said.
“I suppose I look at it as like, ‘wow, what an opportunity to come and pour your energy into something different and redefine the experience for generations to come. That’s a rare opportunity.’”