Located on more than 3,200 acres cocooned by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sweet Briar College has a unique footprint in the world of academia.
Before establishment as a women’s college in 1901, the Sweet Briar campus was a working plantation with tobacco and agricultural crops.
Now, the college plans to use its rolling hills and green space to enter a new era as a leader in enterprise agriculture.
“What we want to do is honor our legacy, our inheritance in land, and do that in ways that are relevant for the 21st century,” Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo said. “So instead of the kind of farming and agriculture we did in the 20th century, we are now moving into more artisanal farming that makes a lot of sense in an educational setting as well.”
However, it also is critical for the college — which nearly closed in 2015 — to ensure any new opportunities advance its financial welfare.
“One thing we’re having to deal with is just making sure we intelligently look at the assets and transition them over in a way that is revenue-positive for the institution,” Director of Agricultural Enterprises Nathan Kluger said.
Woo said the school has been thinking about dipping its toe into a new agricultural model for a while, but it took the right person to create a feasible vision.
“It’s really unique in the sense that it’s being tailor-fit to Sweet Briar and it’s being tailor-fit to Virginia,” Kluger said. “… We’re heavily enterprise-driven. I think that’s what’s going to make us unique and how that’s going to overlap with the student experience here on campus — that’s not something you’re going to get anywhere else.”
When he joined Sweet Briar’s staff last year, Kluger brought nearly two decades of experience in enterprise-level agriculture and horticulture-based businesses, according to an article in Sweet Briar College Magazine.
Woo said the college’s board of directors gave the final go-ahead to the program last year.
“It was one of those things that’s been in our eyes for a long time, but then with Nathan’s arrival, it moved into gear fast,” she explained.
First up was the installation of 20 beehives to create an apiary in the valley of a small hill on the property. Management of the hive is a collaboration between the school and Charlottesville-based The Elysium Honey Company.
Woo said the school will provide Elysium with the raw honey, and the company will then package, market and sell it. Kluger expects the hives to produce up to 1,000 pounds of raw honey this summer.
“The most gratifying thing about it is the great enthusiasm with which the students have embraced learning how to manage beehives,” Woo said. “It’s a great boon for courses like insect biology.”
Students in business classes also designed marketing plans for the honey and nearly two dozen created a beekeeping club as well. Woo said this multi-discipline approach is critical in the implementation of the new agriculture program.
The school recently established a Center for Sustainability and is in the process of hiring a director and dean who will work to design academic programs, certificates and other opportunities for blended learning.
“We will not be a traditional agricultural school like Virginia Tech, for example,” Vice President for Communication and Enrollment Management Melissa Richards said. “We’ll focus on artisanal farming and the business aspect.”
Other facets of the college’s new agriculture program also drive this business-minded approach.
Motorists traveling past Sweet Briar on U.S. 29 may have noticed lines of white dots sprinkling the grassy hillside. These are just some of the 26,000 grape vines college staff has planted across 20 acres on the campus over the past several weeks.
“That is a very nice way to say, ‘Welcome to Sweet Briar’ down [U.S.] 29,” Kluger said as he drove by the view on a recent rainy morning.
He said several Virginia wineries already have approached him about purchasing the grapes, which will take about three years to mature. The campus’s terroir provides the perfect home for several varieties the school has planted, including cabernet franc, merlot and chardonnay.
“We have such an opportunity with the wine industry expanding in Virginia,” Kluger said. “Vineyards really are a fantastic fit with the soils and the slopes [of Sweet Briar].”
Eventually, vineyards will cover at least 60 acres of the campus and could include petit verdot, viogner and petit mansang grapes.
A 15-acre vacant patch of land next to apiary and vineyard will be transformed into a kaleidoscope of color as a wildflower field that will serve as a habitat for pollinators.
The next phase of development is along the college’s old tennis courts. Soon crews will rip out the concrete and fencing and begin installation of a nine-bay, 27,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse that will be substantially complete by fall.
The greenhouse will supply Lynchburg-based Meriwether Godsey, the school’s food service provider, with all the produce it needs to feed the campus. The school plans to sell excess produce to Meriwether Godsey to use for other institutions and restaurants it supplies.
Kluger said the company will dictate what products are grown in the greenhouse.
“If they say they want artichokes, we’ll grow them artichokes,” he said. “We are going to grow what we can sell.”
Seasonality also will inform the produce grown in the greenhouse. Instead of heating it year-round, Kluger said the plan is to create raised bed agriculture that moves with the seasons.
“So if you walk in in February, it may only be 55 degrees in most of the house. We’ll be growing spinaches, lettuces and what thrives in that environment,” he said. “You walk in in July, you’re going to see tomatoes and zucchinis.”
In the future, the school plans to reintroduce livestock to campus and create orchards. All these agricultural enterprises, Woo said, are important for the women’s-only college as it transitions into its next era.
According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 56% of all U.S. farming operations have at least one female decision-maker. In 2017, the number of female producers in the U.S. increased nearly 27% to 1.23 million.
“We see a very interesting megatrend in which we want to be at the forefront and make sure that we’re educating women [and] exciting women about very interesting possibilities in this new century which they will own,” Woo said.
She said Sweet Briar is “a perfect lab, a perfect experience at the head of the curve for showing how” the school’s agrarian roots, complementary curriculum and potential for an agricultural career path can combine to provide a unique experience for young women and the local economy.
“We want this college to be an engine of growth for this sliver of Central Virginia and Amherst County, not only in terms of employment, but in terms of reputation and in terms of the thriving business that we’ll be running here related to our artisanal agriculture,” Woo said.