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Monday, May 20, 2024

‘More than just food’: Tracing the history of The Knoll from grassy hill to community haven

When Bennet Konesni, Chris Howell and Jean Hamilton, all members of the class of 2004.5, first planted the idea of an organic garden at Middlebury in 2002, they did not expect it to become a haven for students seeking refuge from a global pandemic. The values of connectivity and serenity upon which The Knoll was originally built help explain its newfound importance during a semester of social distancing and uncertainty.

“We always had this thought that it would be about more than just food,” Konesni said.

Throughout the fall semester, gathering sizes have remained strictly limited, and students continue to flock to The Knoll to spend time with friends amid the garden beds. 

"[The founders] really wanted it to be a communal and welcoming space for anyone that came to appreciate it, whether that was to walk, run, sit, learn, just be — or gather a bouquet of flowers," Megan Brakeley ‘06, The Knoll's current manager, said. 

Konesni was unsurprised to learn about the central role that The Knoll has played for the campus community this semester. 

“That’s what we wanted,” he said. “It’s amazing that even during a pandemic, The Knoll is there for people to go to and use this challenging moment to look inward.” 

Eighteen years ago, Konesni and Hamilton imagined developing an organic garden to serve as an educational space that would foster a connection with the natural environment and local community. But convincing the college that the project could be sustained was no easy task. 

“The administration was not into it at first,” Konesni said. “But we wanted a farm because the act of growing things is powerful, and we knew it was educational. We thought that if we have sports fields and art museums and concert halls, we should have a farm, too.” 

Following countless conversations with peers, professors and town residents, veteran Vermont farmer Scout Proft connected Konesni with Cornwall resident Jay Leshinsky, who helped bring their vision to life. 

Leshinsky guided Konesni and Hamilton for more than a year as they worked to build the idea, mobilize resources, recruit faculty and administrative supporters and find a site for the garden. Eventually, they received the green light from then-President John McCardell to use a nearby parcel of the college's nearly 6,000 acres of Vermont land. The hunt for the perfect location began. 

Middlebury offered a range of potential sites for the garden, but most lacked access to water and electricity or had clay-heavy soil that would take years to make viable for farming, according to Leshinsky. He and the students enlisted the help of Shoreham farmer Will Stevens in the search for the right spot. 

"On our walk, Will pauses, looks across the street and says, 'Well, what about there? Who owns that knoll?'" Leshinsky said. 

The founding team received funding from the Student Government Association to start a new student-run organization. Not long after, they invited President John McCardell to plant the first cover crop and see what had become of their project.

“He came out there with the chairman of the Board of Trustees, too,” Konesni said. “We definitely had to keep hammering the fact that it would be a liberal-arts, multi-disciplinary approach to growing food, but they were excited about it.”

Leshinsky continued to oversee the garden until retiring in 2018, but still frequents The Knoll.

"He still comes out and volunteers a lot and offers his knowledge because of his deep memories of the people and our relationship to this place," Tara Santi ’20, who interned at The Knoll in the summer of 2019, said. "Many of the events and partnerships that have arisen out of The Knoll are because of him." 

The summer internship program is a hallmark of The Knoll's emphasis on place-based learning, which has been a core tenet of the organic farm and its maintenance from the outset. 

"The way that I think about place-based learning is building awareness of our interdependence on a lot of interdependent scales," Brakeley said. "It is about noticing where you are and analyzing the characteristics of where you are in a way that is tangible." 

As an intern, Santi said she "lived the effects of place-based learning daily" by being encouraged to think deeply about her relationship to her environment and surrounding community in the context of sustainability. 

"The amount of learning that I did, not just about planting beds or different species of corn but also about how to care for a place with other people and learn about consequences, was incredible," Santi said. "You make one decision one day, and three months later, there's an effect." 

According to Leshinsky, in addition to the more than 100 interns who have cycled in and out of the internship program since 2003, a variety of classes have also been taught by professors eager to integrate place-based learning into curriculum across the disciplines, including music, sociology and architecture classes. 

Education and inter-community relationships continue to be a central focus of The Knoll. The farm has partnerships with Middlebury College Dining, Facilities, Environmental Affairs, the Center for Community Engagement, FoodWorks and the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life — which was responsible for bringing the Dalai Lama to The Knoll to bless a marble bench, known as the meditation bench, in 2013. 

The Knoll also sells a portion of its produce to Middlebury Dining Services, which has been a point of contention among community members who have expressed concerns about siphoning profits away from local business. When The Knoll was absorbed into the college budget in 2018, the focus was able to shift away from production and more towards renewed community engagement. 

"The students never wanted to compete with local growers because they saw that the relational aspect is what brings so much meaning," Brakeley said. The Knoll donates much of its produce to the HOPE Food Shelf in Middlebury and has been giving produce to members of Vermont's native Abenaki community for two years. 

The Knoll is located on Abenaki land and has partnered with local Abenaki chief Don Stevens as part of a broader initiative to improve land recognition efforts at the college. That initiative included growing Abenaki corn and beans in the 2019 season under Stevens’s guidance, with broader educational opportunities planned for 2020.

“We had also been working on permanent signage for The Knoll that described the land acknowledgement and shared more about the land’s original inhabitants, but this project got shelved given the uncertainty of budgets and other Covid-19-related timelines,” Brakeley wrote in an email to The Campus. 

In 2017, the organic garden celebrated its 15th anniversary and was officially renamed The Knoll, after the small hill where its creators’ vision was realized. 

The Knoll's founding mission — to educate and nourish its surrounding environment — came into clear focus when the onset of the pandemic left many staff and community members without a steady source of income. 

"The college basically gave us permission to grow produce in anticipation of the community's emergency food needs," Brakeley said. 

Brakeley not only continued to grow produce as an essential worker but also received approval to bring in four dining employees for paid full-time work at The Knoll over the summer. 

"We were able to make something beautiful out of a really tricky situation," Brakeley said.