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Bill Vitek: In Pursuit of Better Agriculture (and a Better Society)

The way we farm and the way we think are connected—that’s our premise.”

On December 16th, Olivia Malloy was joined by Bill Vitek for a conversation about his work with perennial agriculture. Among his many other roles, Mr. Vitek, a philosopher, educator, and scholar, is the editor of New Perennials Publishing. New Perennials Publishing recently released The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field, a collection of works that emphasizes the importance of perennial agriculture in a larger societal context. Mr. Vitek shares both the finer details of the industry and the broader implications of our collective disconnect from how farming is practiced.

Let’s start with some context. Can you briefly explain the idea of perennials and the current state of the agriculture industry? 

Sure, let’s do a little background. Ten or 12 thousand years ago—so, we have to go way back—humans around the globe, for reasons we don’t really understand, started to experiment with growing their own food rather than hunting and gathering. They didn’t know it, but the plants they selected were annual plants. The ones that emerged generations later are the ones we still primarily consume today: wheat, corn, and rice. Those annual plants require a certain kind of human activity—clearing land every year, keeping weeds out because these plants have to come up from seeds, So, annual plants have fed us for ten or 12 thousand years. They’ve also required an enormous amount of human labor and, now, fossil energy. They actually encourage weed growth, so there is a lot of energy put into weeding. They’ve done a lot of damage to the climate and have been a major contributor to species extinction.

About 40 years ago, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas asked this radical question: Why can’t we have perennial grains? Since grains make up about 65% of worldwide calories, why not develop perennial versions? And the answer is that it’s complicated, and it’s hard, and it’s probably not going to work—that’s what he was told. 40 years later, he and a team of scientists have proved the naysayers wrong. Now, around the world, there are about 60 research organizations working on the development of not only perennial grains but of perennial legumes and oilseeds. Perennial plants last more than one season. Also, they put roots deep into the ground, come up earlier, and keep the weeds away. 

So, where are we now? Well, there is a perennial wheatgrass called Kernza that is now being commercialized by lots of folks. It was developed at the Land Institute, but others now are developing varieties. Chinese scientists have created a perennial patty rice, which is in production. So, it has started. It takes a long time to ramp these up and to commercialize them, but I would say that the proof of concept has been established. Now, it’s a matter of developing varieties, encouraging farmers to use them, and creating an infrastructure that would allow this to happen.

From there, can you explain what New Perennials is and what your goals are with New Perennials Publishing?

Sure, sure. So, New Perennials is the name of a project that a small group of us put together—and is now being funded—to explore not just how perenniality can function in agriculture but also how it can function in the world outside of agriculture: in our social systems, our education, our religious practices, economics, and the like. That seems like an odd idea, but our premise is that annual agriculture shifted not only the landscape but also how we think about ourselves as being in charge because we grow the food instead of gathering it. It has shaped cultural systems; we think about short-term growth, which is what annuals do. The way we farm and the way we think are connected—that’s our premise. And so, the New Perennials is both new and ancient. We are saying that we need to return to the notions of looking to nature for how it creates ecosystems and then apply it to our farming. Too much of culture is based on extraction, consumption, short-term growth, in the same way that we turn the land into a giant machine and make it work non-stop. We do the same thing to workers. Our project believes that education is the best place to start thinking about these cultural questions because it is education that allows one generation to pass on the most essential bits of information to the next generation. So much of our educational systems, really, are about preparing young people to live a short-term, fast-paced life. So, what do the alternatives look like?

Exactly. It definitely sounds like there are so many different social and political forces at play here, and it seems like it’s at the intersection of—I don’t know—a hundred different industries, too. 


What do you think are some of the more prominent forces that have led to—I don’t want to say the “downfall” of agriculture, but the forces that have led us into this really pivotal moment?

In some ways, we are the victims of our success. One of the things that disturbance agriculture did is that it gave those early people who practiced it a huge advantage. Those plants created big, fat seeds that gave the people who ate that food a lot of energy. It allowed them to store grain over the winter, to travel with it. And so, agriculture has been hugely successful because it really treats the soil as a carbon mine, and it draws that carbon energy out. Those who manage to control that system—they were the first emperors. They were the first kings and queens. We created this, in some ways, hugely successful system because some people figured out how to put nature under domination. Those folks also created some societies that did the same thing towards people. So, we have state societies that just assumed slavery was part of the work because farming was hard work. The players that we are now dealing with—in what we might call “industrial” agriculture—are really just a larger example of that domination and control over others. I think it’s part of the evolution of agriculture’s “success,” at a great cost to the natural world. While it’s easy to say that it’s this company or that company or the banking industry—which puts farmers into huge debt and causes stress—it can simply be that the world’s population is expanding, and there is a need for farmers to grow more and more food. So, there are lots of different players involved. I’ve known plenty of farmers in my life. They aren’t bad people. They aren’t relishing in the work of tearing up soil or grass. So, we are all, in some ways, victims while some people profit off of that. 

It almost seems like this is the natural result of so many different things—of all of the history behind agriculture. When you combine that with, specifically, American consumerism and this drive for instant gratification—

Right! That instant gratification came out of a system in which, at the very beginning, only very few people had instant gratification. They were the emperors; they were the pharaohs. Almost everyone else was an indentured slave or a servant or a soldier. Well, what the Industrial Revolution did with the use of fossil fuels—it created a promise that every one of us could become a king, a sovereign. The Enlightenment created this image that we would all become sovereign individuals. A sovereign is essentially independent of others—self-sufficient. This idea that we could do that—it did seem almost possible because there seemed to be no end to the trees growing, no end to the coal, no end to the oil. We’re discovering that there are ends to those things but—maybe more importantly—that the damage is done to our home. We are not separate from nature. We are very much a part of it. It is about learning how to live like a neighbor, not a king. That’s what we need to do, going forward. This project we’re working on—it starts to get at that. I have to say, the work we’ve been doing with college students, with high school students—we’ve been working with community partners, people who work at nonprofits, in the creative arts, in education, in faith traditions. They resonate with this notion of perenniality because they do try to live that way, but it’s so hard in a culture that tells them not to do that and to think short-term constantly.

I think now, more than ever, the connection between agriculture and society at-large is so severely overlooked outside of farming communities. So many of us are completely detached from the agricultural process. That, combined with all of these other driving forces, has created a complete inability for many of us to even begin to process it. Some of us are just so far removed from it. 

Not all human groups did this, but once certain human groups had a certain kind of success based on their feeling that they were in control of the natural world; they had to subdue it, as it says in the Book of Genesis. That became normal. I share with my students: When you drive by a cornfield or that corn has been cut and you see this bare soil and the stalks, that just seems like a natural fall image. But, it’s really an unnatural disaster. It’s bare soil. If it’s left without being touched, it will very quickly repopulate with what we call “weeds” and plants to cover up that soil. It’s not natural, yet it seems perfectly okay. Those huge harvesters we see pictures of, all those big piles of grain—”amber waves of grain” in our songs—those are fueling a false sense of control and abundance. They have a lot of power, but a lot of that power has been destructive. 

Moving forward—this is a broad question, but where do we go from here? Do you think that the industry is ready to dive into perennials? Is that a long-term goal that the industry as a whole will adopt? How do you see this when it comes to execution?

If we want to stop short-term profit and growth, that’s the only way of thinking. Getting the industry involved in this probably isn’t going to help that because they will bend it to their own needs and finds ways to make money off of it. But I don’t want to rule that out, of course. If perennial agriculture is going to be successful, it has to scale up. The world needs to feed seven billion people. The world will need those systems that are already in place, whether it’s the Internet or international banking or the seed companies. If 65% of all human calories come from grains, then it’s important to scale this up to get perennial plants in the ground. So, I think that is a goal, but your bigger question is “Well, what do we do now?” or “How will this work?” A couple of years ago, Wes Jackson and I edited a book called The Virtues of Ignorance. It’s about the way in which there are so many things we just can’t know about the world—that humans are not these all-knowing creatures. When you accept that we aren’t sure what we’re going to do, I think it invites a way in for community. 

When I don’t know what I’m going to do next, I usually ask someone I know for help, and suddenly there’s a conversation. I think, more and more, that’s what’s missing. Every industry has their own experts. We don’t talk to our neighbors half the time. We just tune into our own information source. We face multiple cascading crises: climate, species, social justice, inequities. So, where do we start? Well, we don’t know. I think the answer is in this notion of what perennial diversity looks like. It’s that there is no one answer. There’s no one crop; there’s no one right way. Actual ecosystems are, by their very nature, full of multiple species, and most of them are perennial. So, for me, I think the answer is a lot more regional and local approaches, putting a lot more experiments in place, and not ignoring the larger global systems because they’re not going to go away any time soon. I don’t think it makes sense to try to bring them down or tear them down, though I think it’s interesting to note that the major oil companies are in a free fall right now because they are being left with what is called “stranded assets.” Pretty soon, they’ll have maybe trillions, but at least billions of dollars invested in future oil production—already spent—that will never get paid back because people are moving away from it. We’re worrying about tearing down these corporate institutions, but they may fall on their own accord or they will transition in some other way that surprises us. 

I do think—I’m a philosopher—becoming more aware of our historical roots and thinking about the ways in which what we eat also shapes how we think about ourselves in the world. It goes a long way to just say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that so much of our modern education is set up like a farm.” We sit in rows, the same way crops are planted in rows. The teacher grades us, which is like weeding. We graduate, and we wear our tassels on our caps, which are symbolic of grown corn. We get harvested, and we get sent out. I mean, that’s a lighthearted way of saying that once we start to see agriculture’s influence in the larger culture—we don’t want to throw it all away, of course, but we want to think about what works and what doesn’t. I don’t know a single farmer who would object to not having, every spring, to spend millions of dollars plowing fields to get them ready to spray herbicides onto bare soil. They would maybe have to do that every fifth year and, for four of those years, they have a crop or multiple crops that come up every year—the way your grass does every spring. In some ways, the real insight here is that this natural thing that ecosystems do has become unnatural to our eyes and our senses. It’s just a matter of reminding us of the natural way that ecosystems work and returning to that. There are seeds that are buried in us. We want them to come out, but we get told over and over again, “Don’t put roots down in a community. It’s a waste of time. Move every few years. Take the next job.” It’s just short-term, short-term, short-term.

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