Artisanal breadmaking, holistic orcharding, and small-batch brewing are on the syllabus this summer at Vermont's Sterling College.
The Craftsbury Common-based work college, known for its commitment to environmental stewardship, recently announced the launch of the School of the New American Farmstead. It will offer an array of hands-on continuing-education courses in small-scale food production and sustainable farming. Its founders hope to reach a broad audience beyond Sterling's 128-strong student body.
The new school "was born out of a desire to reach a greater number of people who have perhaps already completed some form of higher education," says Nicole Civita, assistant director of Sterling's Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. "We wanted to bring in instructors with a depth of knowledge that is both accessible and applicable, and open it up to everyone."
"Harvest Preservation: Canning, Drying, Pickling, and Salt Curing," "Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycorrhizae: The Cultivation & Permaculture of Funghi," and "Regenerative Agriculture" are among the 17 initial courses offered at the School of the New American Farmstead. Classes begin May 23. Other subjects run the gamut from dairy craft to draft-horse farming.
"The driving force is to show students the whole system," says Civita. "It's built around the idea of a full farmstead."
Though Sterling students can register for classes, which are small (14 to 25 students) to facilitate discussion between instructors and attendees, prior enrollment is not a prerequisite. Indeed, the college's website implores "agrarians, culinarians, entrepreneurs, and lifelong learners" to seek out classes.
"We wanted to serve the community of northeast Vermont," Civita explains. "Food is ultimately the way the greatest number of people connect with agriculture and ecology. It's also a great way into thinking about human relationships with the natural world. ... We see this as the latest step in the evolution of Sterling."
Christian Feuerstein, director of communications, expects the high caliber of the school's instructors to entice attendees. Some have risen to "local hero" stature among foodies, she says.
One example is Sandor Katz, who calls himself a "fermentation revivalist." Having previously taught at Sterling in 2014, the New York Times-bestselling author is returning to oversee "The Art of Fermentation," an Aug. 1-12 course in which he'll work with students to teach the basics of a widely misunderstood craft.
"It's a terrifying idea, growing bacteria on stuff that you want to put on your dinner table," Katz says. "Part of what I'll be doing is demystifying the process for people."
He's full of praise for Sterling's workshop model. "As an educational experience, the fact that it's so hands-on is really meaningful and important," he says. "I take a lot of pleasure in seeing light bulbs go off in my students, and being with them for two weeks, that will happen."
Feuerstein is looking forward to seeing attendees jump headfirst into Katz's course and others. "One student on Facebook said, 'I could plotz,' " she recalls of campus response to announcing the school's launch. "That's the kind of excitement we've seen from students."
That same avidity attracted Vermont Salumi founder Pete Colman, who'll teach the Butchery & Charcuterie course from July 1-15.
"I know I'm going to be in a room with people who share the same enthusiasm for this stuff and aren't just there because they have to take a class," he says. "That's going to be amazing, for me and for them."
Colman, who has taught workshops at Sterling in the past, wants students to learn the fundamentals of butchering, processing, fermenting, curing, and dry-aging meats. He'll also explore regulatory standards for anyone interested in pursuing the craft professionally.
If the school is as successful as Civita and Feuerstein believe it will be, it will expand in subsequent semesters. But in the meantime, both say, getting the program off the ground represents a huge victory for Sterling, one that will do much to broaden its reach and bolster its reputation.
"There's increasingly real recognition of the uniqueness of what we're trying to do here," Civita says. "This feels like a big moment for us."
Registration for Sterling College's School of the New American Farmstead is now open at www.sterlingcollege.edu.