Small colleges in Vermont and around the country are struggling to fill classrooms and remain viable. Meanwhile, Sterling College is attracting students from across the country and around the globe to its Northeast Kingdom campus to take classes offered by its School of the New American Farmstead.
“There are tons of different things you can do with your whey — in the dairy, on farm, in the kitchen, in the garden," instructor David Asher told a group of about a dozen students at Sterling College, in Craftsbury Common.
Asher is a farmstead cheesemaker from British Columbia. The class is called the Art of Natural Cheesemaking, which is also the title of Asher’s book on the subject. That book is required reading for the class — but most of the students in this sold-out course have already read it.
Before signing up for the course, most of these students had never heard of Sterling College, and many had never been to Vermont. David Asher is the draw.
During a lunch break in the Sterling College dining hall, hobby cheesemaker Karen Dickson explained what brought her here from her home in Spokane, Washington.
"When I found out that David was going to be in the states, albeit, you know, across the United States – I’ve never been to Vermont – I was really excited to come here and meet him," Dickson said.
And Namrata Sundarsen travelled to Craftsbury for the class from Chennai, India.
"I think David’s class is as much about cheesemaking as it’s about a philosophy of life," Sundarsen said. "That’s how I see it. It’s about doing things in a more sustainable way. It’s easy to get carried away with modern convenience. It’s a little difficult to unlearn and go back, but I think that’s what I’m taking back with me."
She’ll be bringing those lessons, as well as her cheesemaking skills, back to a group of girls she works with in Chennai.
"So I have a team of girls who are autistic, blind, hearing-impaired, and cheesemaking was something I had learned in a farmstay and I started doing this as therapy with the girls," Namrata explained.
Like other students in the class, Namrata came to learn from Asher, but she said Sterling College is a pleasant surprise.
"I think it’s the most un-campus like campus, if I can say that. And David, in Vermont, couldn’t have gotten better. So here I am, braving the winter to find my answers, to learn more," she said with a laugh.
Asher's course is part of Sterling's continuing education arm, called the School of the New American Farmstead. It's a partnership with Vermont publisher Chelsea Green, and Asher said he’s among the first of many author-instructors brought onboard.
"Sterling College has hired a good number of different educators from across the organic farming community, who have published works on subjects like mine," he said. "So there are other professors that come and teach courses on fermentation, that come teach classes on mushroom cultivation, on sourdough bread making and other sort of natural farming arts."
The learning isn’t confined to the Sterling College campus. On the same day another class – this one intended for professional cheesemakers – is touring the cheese caves at Jasper Hill Farm, in neighboring Greensboro.
"We need to deliver education to different audiences for different purposes," explained Philip Ackerman-Leist, who was just brought on as the first dean of the continuing education school. "And sometimes people are doing it for their own validation, their own enrichment, and other times they need the certification. And the intent here is to do all of that at one time, and to speak to all those audiences."
Ackerman-Leist added: “The School of the New American Farmstead, really the idea there is to tap into the wisdom, the traditions, the crafts that have really built so much of the rural culture of the Northeast Kingdom and certainly Vermont, and then translate that into current day knowledge. … So I think it really provides the opportunity for people to turn passions into livelihoods, and that’s a really powerful piece."
In addition to building out a full schedule of on-campus course offerings, Ackerman-Leist said he’ll be working on digital ways to offer distance learning.
"Really, I think it helps us permeate the rural landscape across the United States and even beyond," he said. "And so that’s one of the fascinating pieces – is how do we actually translate this highly experiential component into something that also is digital and widespread?"
Ackerman-Leist said colleges need to be innovative to survive in higher education today, and he said Sterling College is doing that by diversifying its offerings and its audience.