Thoreau College Field School

Thoreau College Field School Program

Viroqua, Wisconsin — May 13 – June 7, 2024

The Thoreau College Field School program offers young adults a 4-week long immersion into the ecology, history, agriculture, and human cultures of the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin.  Taking place between mid-May and mid-June, one of the most dynamic and busy times of the agricultural year, the Field School program is an opportunity to experience a rich tapestry of activity and life here in a ecologically and culturally vibrant corner of the rural Midwest, while in the company of a small cohort of fellow seekers and learners.

Some of the things Field School participants will experience include:

  • Hands on experience with growing and transplanting plants in gardens, vineyard, and greenhouse.
  • Care for domestic animals, including sheep, chickens, and pigs.  For those who are interested, this will include an opportunity to learn chicken butchering.
  • Introduction to the geological and ecological history of the Driftless Bioregion, including field trips to significant locations and identification of local plants, animals, insects, birds, and fungi.
  • Introduction to the human history of our region, beginning with the Ho Chunk and other indigenous peoples, and including European conquest and settlement, the African American Cheyenne Valley community, the Amish, and the back-to-the-land movement.
  • Exploration of the American agricultural and food system, through farm visits, readings, films, and guest speakers, including an introduction to the principles of biodynamics, permaculture, rotational grazing, and regenerative farming.
  • Workshops in folk crafts and homesteading skills such as basketry, foraging wild plants and fungi, scything, cheesemaking, metal casting, and spoon carving.
  • Short canoeing and hiking expeditions in the local area.
  • Life together in a self-governing shared household of fellow students, including shared meals, meetings, and celebrations.

Program Calendar and Schedule

Thoreau College strives to cultivate a harmonious balance of activities that engage head, heart, and hands across all programs and all periods of time.  In practice, this means an integration of open discussions of ideas and perspectives with the arts and hands-on physical activities in all courses.  A typical day at Thoreau College begins with a Morning Circle with students and faculty incorporating singing, movement activities, and announcements.  The rest of the morning is devoted to a single block of class time focused on an academic topic or an artistic or manual skill workshop. Following a mid-day break, afternoons are devoted to labor activities in the greenhouse, gardens, farm, or community partners.  On Friday, there is a community-wide meeting over lunch where important questions of shared governance are discussed and decided upon.  Evenings and weekends are generally unscheduled, although students will have opportunities to participate in elective courses offered through the Driftless Folk School and the Thoreau College Community Seminar.

Each week of the Field School will include at least one day-long canoe-trip, hiking expedition, or field trip to important sites around the region.  Many other days will feature shorter field trips to farms and natural sites as well.   

Field School Schedule

 Curriculum Overview


Marking the beginning and ending of each week, the Driftless Explorations course will use an multidisciplinary approach including anthropology, history, and Earth sciences to introduce students to the natural and human ecology of the Driftless Region, providing a conceptual framework for the many other experiences that students will be having over the course of the Field School program.  Starting with the unique geological history of the region, the class will discuss the history and culture of the indigenous peoples who have called this region home, as well as the other groups who have settled here over time.  A special focus of this course will be the agricultural history of the region, which is a center of the organic and sustainable agriculture movements in the United States.  Students will come away with a much deeper understanding of the ways in which the food and agriculture systems of the world work today.  Material for the class will be explored through readings, guest speakers, field trips, and films.


May and June is a beautiful time to be outdoors here in Wisconsin and we will take full advantage of this to be outside much of everyday.  This will include day-long canoe trips on the Kickapoo River and other bodies of water, hikes in public natural areas such as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and visits to cultural sites such one of several effigy mound complexes in the region.  Throughout the month, we will also visit a number of different farms and homesteads in the area practicing different forms of agriculture and land stewardship, as well as established rural intentional communities.


During each week of the Field School, participants will take part in a different folk art or craft workshop led by one of the instructors of the Driftless Folk School, which is the community education branch of Thoreau College.  Some of the possible workshops include basketry, spoon carving, coppersmithing, bookbinding, and wool carding and spinning.


Afternoon labor will take place between 1:00 and 5:00 pm on Monday, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, or roughly 12 hours per week.  Skills that will be learned and practiced during this semester include:

      • Garden bed preparation, mulching, and planting
      • Homestead greenhouse management
      • Care for sheep and hogs
      • Rotational pasture management
      • Fence building and repair
      • Vineyard and orchard care
      • Care for chickens & chicken butchering (optional)
      • Composting
      • Equipment and building maintenance and repair

 Program Details


The program will begin on Monday, May 13 and end on Friday, June 7, 2024.  Participants should plan to arrive in Viroqua, Wisconsin no later than Friday, May 10.


Private or shared rooms will be available in Thoreau College facilities for up to 14 program participants.  Some participants will live at the Thoreau College campus, which is located on 6 acres of open land on the edge of Viroqua where we will be developing new gardens and other activities, while others will be living a short walk away in town at one of your residential houses with up to 5 others.  Weekday lunches will be provided during the program, but participants are responsible for their other meals. Students will have access to full kitchen facilities and some early season food from our farm and garden operations.


Thoreau College is committed to making our programs financially accessible to as many qualified participants as possible.  The admissions process is need blind, and upon admission each new student will have a financial pledge conversation with a member of our staff to determine a contribution that makes sense for you.  The financial pledge will cover program fees, housing, tools, books, arts and crafts supplies, and local transportation.

As a guide for thinking about what a reasonable contribution might be, please consider this three-tiered sliding scale:

Supporter Tier:  $2,500
If you move through the world with financial ease and the means to fulfill many of your wants as well as your needs – you are able to eat out when you want, abundantly meet your needs through employment or can comfortably not work, have access to family wealth, own property, etc. – consider paying at this level, which will help us ensure the long term sustainability of our programs while keeping our offerings accessible to those with access to fewer resources.

Sustainer Tier: $2,000
If you are able to meet your needs with relative ease while budgeting your educational and entertainment spending – for instance, you are able to take classes and eat out occasionally as long as you are mindful – consider paying at this level, which will help sustain the work of the College at a modest level.

Supported Tier: $1,500
If you struggle to fund your basic needs and have limited access to resources in your family and community, or if you would not be able to access this program without a discounted payment option, consider paying at this level. We value your presence and contributions to our community and do not want any economic circumstances to be a barrier to attendance!


Please follow this link to APPLY NOW!  The application includes personal information and a couple of short essay prompts.  It will also ask you for one personal reference for us to contact, preferably a teacher, professor, or employer.  If it seems like you could be a good fit for the program, we will contact you to set up an interview – in person or via Zoom – with members of our admissions team, including students.

We will begin filling spots in this program on a rolling basis starting on Januay 15 and continuing until the program is full.  Please submit your application as soon as you can!


At this time, the Thoreau College Field School Program does not confer any credit, diploma, credential, or qualification.  If you are currently enrolled in an accredited college or university, we would be happy to work with your institution to secure independent study, internship, or study abroad credits if that is a possibility.

“No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”