Located on more than 3,200 acres near 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 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 tenuous 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 .”
When he joined Sweet Briar’s staff last year, Kluger brought nearly two decades of experience in agriculture and horticulture-based businesses, according to an article in Sweet Briar College Magazine.
It’s an idea that’s been thought of before by previous leaders of the college, but never brought to fruition. Now there’s a sense of urgency to remake the college, which continues to operate substantially below student capacity after years of enrollment declines.
“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,” Woo said.
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.
“It’s a great boon for courses like insect biology,” she added.
Students in business classes also designed marketing plans for the honey and nearly two dozen created a beekeeping club as well.
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 approach.
Motorists traveling past Sweet Briar on U.S. 29 may have noticed some of the 26,000 grape vines college staff has planted across 20 acres on the campus over the past several weeks.
Kluger said Virginia wineries already have approached him about purchasing the grapes, which will take about three years to mature. The campus’s terroir is seen as favorablke to several varieties the school has planted, including cabernet franc, merlot and chardonnay.
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 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.
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 tries tocreate a new era and viability
“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.