Sweet Briar Finds Niche in Artisinal Agriculture

A Sweet Briar student holds a honeycomb from one of the school’s beehives.

Women account for a rapidly increasing percentage of the nation’s farmers, and in that trend Sweet Briar College sees a business opportunity. The women’s college, which nearly shut down due to financial difficulties a couple of years ago, has no intention of competing with Virginia Tech’s traditional agricultural sciences program. Instead, it is building a program around artisinal farming.

Located on 3,200 acres in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Sweet Briar campus once was a working plantation with tobacco and agricultural crops. Now it hosts vineyards and beehives, and it is tearing out the old tennis courts to install a nine-bay, 27,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse. In the future, the school plans to raise livestock and plant orchards.

According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 56% of all U.S. farming operations have at least one female decision-maker, and the percentage of female farmers has been rising rapidly, reaching 1.23 million, reports the News & Advance. Says President Meredeith Woo: “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.”

The farming will be market-driven. Sweet Briar expects to sell 1,000 pounds of raw honey to Charlottesville-based The Elysium Honey Company. It is selling grapes to Virginia wineries. And it has partnered with Lynchburg-based Meriwether Godsey, the school’s food service provider, to take the greenhouse produce.

“If they say they want artichokes, we’ll grow them artichokes,” says Nathan Kluger, director of agricultural enterprises. “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.”

Bacon’s bottom line: As college enrollments decline along with a shrinking college-age population, many small colleges like Sweet Briar are going out of business. To survive, small educational institutions need to find a niche in which they can excel. Sweet Briar has found a niche that plays into two mega-trends: the increasing number of women farmers and the growing vitality of artisinal agriculture.

The school also has established a Center for Sustainability, but there may be reason to hope that it will offer more than anti-capitalist social-justice bromides. Maybe I’m reading too much into a few quotes in a single newspaper article, but it appears that Sweet Briar will be teaching business principles and showing how to build a better world by working within a market-based system.

There are two broad paths to bringing about social change. One is to enlist the coercive power of the state to tax and regulate the population into submission. The other is to harness the power of creativity and entrepreneurship to show people a better way. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that Sweet Briar is choosing the path of entrepreneurship, innovation and persuasion.

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6 responses to “Sweet Briar Finds Niche in Artisinal Agriculture”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    If Sweet Briar really wants to help their students they will grow hemp too. Then, on day in the near future, the RPV will be voted out of office and Virginia will legalize marijuana and all that hemp growing experience will pay off. Now there’s a cash crop – especially when you consider the “value added” processes of refining marijuana into edibles, drinkables, oils, etc. Worst case, the Sweet Briar women who grow hemp can take their skills to one of the growing number of states that isn’t living in the 1950s.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The two most consequential college presidents in the 21st century so far in Virginia are Phillip C. Stone and Meredith Woo, the 12th and 13th presidents of Sweet Brian College, respectively.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      You should include Paul Trible at Christopher Newport University in that list. although his tenure overlaps the 20th century by a few years.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Yes, I should include Paul Trible on that list, but in a different category, a metric of success defined by the post 1960s half of the 20th Century, as perfected to a new level by Christoper Newport between 2000-2015, as did James Madison U. Reading the tone and focus of their descriptions of success on Wikipedia tells us much about how those two institutions and their ilk define their success, for instance, their focus on voracious expansion via real estate construction. As I have stated many times here, this is a flawed metric. One whose flaws must be remedied to assure future success of the system of Higher Education in Virginia.

        Phillip C. Stone and Meredith Woo, the 12th and 13th presidents of Sweet Brian College, respectively, began to reverse the consequences of these flaws in 2015, and build atop failing systems of education a whole new set of solutions that refocused those metrics on the individual students and their learning, arming them far better to cope with the new challenges, flaws, and insecurities of our modern world. This work in process far from done, but a strong beginning has been made thanks to Phil Stone, Meredith Woo, and those many who rose up, funded, and called them to the great task, many of them alumni of Sweet Briar College.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          I awkwardly expressed the central flaw in post 1960s US higher education metrics of success. The great growth of existing US colleges and universities focused on rampant construction of facilities, most having little to do with teaching, but instead having everything so with status, ranking, and building entertainment systems into the colleges and heavy STEM research into the universities, along with the ballooning administration costs of both.

          This forced ever higher enrollments along with ever higher tuition and fees costs. And the need to fill up and keep ever more classroom seats filled in order to pay for rapid escalations of costs. At same time, resources devoted to teaching and learning dwindled as enrollments at colleges and universities exploded. These operating regimes and missions ran counter to teaching and learning of students, particularly on the individual and undergraduate level.

          The new Sweet Briar curriculum and its operating procedures across the board counter these obstacles to effective in depth teaching and learning of students.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      There are profound flaws in today’s American System of Higher Education, what is going on at places like UVA, James Madison U., and Christopher Newport U., that today threaten our youth and their future. What fights to survive and prosper at Sweet Briar College may well hold important newly refined solutions and antidotes to those flaws that are infecting our kids educations.

      Here is one new summation of the flaws and possible remedies:

      Our Intellectual Systems Are Theoretically Stagnant and Need New Ideas

      “(America’s colleges and universities) The academy and other institutions mostly produce intellectuals who fall into two categories: jackals and rabbits. Jackals misuse their knowledge for political ends or for self-aggrandizement, and are attracted to ideas dead and decomposing. Rabbits patiently munch away at small problems while nervously avoiding the unknown, and are admitted to run and hide when approached by strangers.

      There have been great intellectual triumphs in recent centuries, and amazing work is being done right now on scientific applications to produce technology. But theoretical work across disciplines has stagnated, and this makes febrile soil for (Identity Driven) conspiracy theories, ideology, and the idiocies of the weak-willed and wicked. Many feel entitled to their opinions above the exigencies of having to learn. All the while, so many essential questions remain unanswered, either because we pay them no mind, (are blinded to them by Identity Driven Ideologies) or because we have no fresh ideas. How do we account for the subjectivity of consciousness in physical terms? What is rhythm? Why are we taught that there are three observable dimensions of space and one linear dimension of time? How is paralanguage related, structurally, to music? What, exactly, are grammatical categories? What is “information”? (What is knowledge? What is learning? What is Virtue?) We have a solid Darwinian theory of function—where is the complementary theory of form, and which is more basic? What is “life”?

      I might posit here another category of intellectual, the platypus. We need a venomous, duck-waddling, semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal, the last of its kind, the first comedian of Dream Time. Someone with a completely new idea of an old feeling, and enough sense of irony to communicate it. It’s very hard to make fundamental progress on big intellectual problems, and even the most talented among us can fail through no intrinsic fault of their own. But, socially, we must make a place for the awkward, original platypus, whether or not he succeeds. Or ours will be a kingdom of jackals.” End Quote. Words in parenthesis were added to original.

      For more see The Crisis of Sense-Making, by Jeffrey Quackenbush, published today, May 26, 2019 in Quillette, found at:


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