The Knoll at Middlebury College with Bicentennial Hall in the background.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Middlebury College has received a $415,000 grant from the Rockefeller Family Fund for the first year of a multiyear effort aimed at dramatically changing the way people think about large-scale food production and its ecological and social impacts. The New Perennials Project, led by Middlebury Scholar in Residence Bill Vitek, features a new interdisciplinary course, guest speakers, engagement with community partners throughout the Champlain Valley, crop testing at the College farm, an annual conference, and engagement with departments and programs across campus.

“The Franklin Environmental Center is thrilled to host Bill Vitek as a scholar in residence, and to continue the College’s vital partnership with the New Perennials Project,” said Nan Jenks-Jay, dean of environmental affairs. “Vermont’s Champlain Valley provides rich soil—in both the literal and figurative sense—for innovation into the future of agriculture. The need for resilient polycultures, both agricultural and social, has never been so clear. Already, we’re seeing the seeds of Bill’s work begin to germinate; thanks to the generosity of Rockefeller Family Fund.”

Silphium plant in a test plot at the Knoll. Photo: Nadine Barnicle

Vitek, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Clarkson University, plans to build on the work of the Land Institute and its founder Wes Jackson, who envision a future in which natural systems agriculture—or multiseason perennial crops planted in diverse multicrop arrangements—will provide commercial-level food production, displacing the current annual monoculture crop model. Perennial grain and oilseed crops now being developed by scientists in more than 40 countries have deep root systems that absorb water and nutrients more efficiently and require far less human intervention to produce food.

“The big idea here is to shift away from the agricultural practices we’ve developed over thousands of years that disrupt the soil each year to plant annual crops requiring pesticides, irrigation, and added nutrients to produce high yields,” said Vitek. “That approach, which has kept us fed, has also led to untold damage through climate change, soil erosion, pollution, species extinction, and social injustice.”

While seed propagation is crucial to success, Vitek knows that undoing millennia-old thinking will require more than science alone can deliver.

“It’s a whole shift in how we imagine and organize ourselves, and that means trying to influence large sociocultural systems and traditions, most of which function within extractive-surplus energy systems, beginning with agriculture,” said Vitek. “Education is where we think our best chance of influencing the necessary cultural capacity for regenerative, perennial agriculture lies.”

Last fall, Vitek; Nadine Canter Barnicle, professor of the practice and community engagement specialist; and Marc Lapin, associate lab professor in environmental studies, developed and cotaught a course called The Perennial Turn. In the course, which is offered again this year, students analyze how well perennial ideas might address local, regional, and planetary issues of social justice and climate stability.

With an emphasis on experiential learning, the new course includes a network of community partners from throughout the region, with whom students interact. Barnicle created the partners program and says working with the community partners gives students “another layer of interdisciplinary experience that will help expand their ideas of what is possible.”

Middlebury President Laurie Patton believes the project will strengthen Middlebury’s ties to Vermont through a critical global issue.

“The partners engaged through the New Perennials Project will be important stakeholders in helping our students understand both the inspirations and the challenges of the agricultural choices we make every day,” said Patton. “They’ll see the philosophical and environmental tradeoffs inherent in energy decisions as they relate to agriculture, and how these are questions of local and global significance.”