10 Minutes with Wes Jackson

The founder of The Land Institute delves into the balance between agriculture and natural ecosystems.

by Dani Yokhna
Wes Jackson is founder and president of The Land Institute.

Wes Jackson, PhD, founder and president of The Land Institute, was born in 1936 on a farm near Topeka, Kan. He received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Kansas Wesleyan University, a master’s degree in botany from the University of Kansas and a PhD in genetics from North Carolina State University. He was a professor of biology at Kansas Wesleyan and later established the Environmental Studies Department at California State University, Sacramento, where he became a tenured full professor.

Jackson’s writings include both papers and books. His most recent books are Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson (Counterpoint, 2011) and Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture (Counterpoint, 2010). Becoming Native to This Place (University Press of Kentucky, 1994) sketches his vision for the resettlement of America’s rural communities. New Roots for Agriculture (University of Nebraska Press, 1980) outlines the basis for the agricultural research at The Land Institute.

The work of The Land Institute has been featured extensively in mainstream media. In its November 2005 issue, Smithsonian named Jackson one of “35 Who Made a Difference,” and in March 2009, Jackson was included in Rolling Stone’s “100 Agents of Change.” Jackson is also a recipient of the Pew Conservation Scholars Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Right Livelihood Award (known as Alternative Nobel Prize) and the Louis Bromfield Award. He has received four honorary doctorate degrees, and in 2007, he received the University of Kansas Distinguished Service Award.

Hobby Farms: What inspired you to establish The Land Institute?

Wes Jackson: I’d been at California State University in Sacramento where they’d hired me to start the Environmental Studies Department. The students were dealing with the issue of sustainability and thinking about what it meant to be sustainable.

The youngest of six children, my father was born on a farm in 1886; my mother was born on a farm in 1894. I come from a farm in Kansas, born in the mid-1930s, pretty close to the height of the Great Depression. The family life and family practice was a lot closer to basics back then.  Our farm then was closer to a sun-powered farm than nearly any are now. We milked cows and used draft animals. We had chickens, turkeys, geese, the butcher hog, the steer. My family then made the transition to tractors along with all the other farmers until the dependence on fossil carbon was nearly complete. Time passed. I left home for college, graduate school, teaching. We had a civil rights movement, Vietnam—the world was changing fast, especially on the farm, and I became increasingly concerned about how vulnerable we were becoming as a culture. The family lore and early experience on the farm never left me.

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In my students, I saw deep concern about population, resource depletion and pollution, and I saw the distance between the time I was born and that crop of students. I wanted to see if we could still do what I perceived to be necessary, so our family, five of us, went back to Kansas on leave for a couple of years. Then it was either go back to California or resign.

While in Kansas, I had this idea of a school where students could spend about half of their time reading and thinking and discussing and the other half doing things hands-on. Here was a chance, I thought, to think about what the world would need to know and do if we were to run agriculture and culture on contemporary sunlight. This requires an exploration of social, philosophical, economic and political implications of such a world. That’s what guided our efforts.

Early on, we tried too much. Within a year after the startup of The Land Institute, we began to focus more on agriculture, how it was not sustainable with or without fossil carbon because of soil erosion. Here was a problem we were supposed to get ahead of with the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service in the mid-1930s. In 1977, it appeared to me that we were failing miserably. That is when the idea came of the possibility of an agriculture based on the way the prairie works.

HF: What do you view as the biggest success for the organization so far?

WJ: First, a little background: Once the problem of agriculture was identified as being due to grain agriculture’s dependence on the annuals mostly grown in monocultures, we started thinking about what it would mean to perennialize the major crops of grains, where about 70 percent of our calories come from 70 percent of our acreage. At that point, we began to deal with the idea of trying to build an agriculture based on the way natural ecosystems work: Essentially, all of nature’s ecosystems are land-based are perennials, as opposed to annuals, and they’re grown in mixtures. Whether it’s a deciduous forest, a rainforest, a prairie or an alpine meadow, nature tends to keep its perennials in mixtures, and agriculture reversed that some 10,000 years ago.

The reason I have given this history before I answer the question is to give you something of an appreciation of the radical nature of what was proposed. As you can imagine, there was a lot of resistance to the use of perennial grains early on, but now the idea has caught on enough that it has attracted the interest of young scientists. Also, the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council has highlighted and endorsed perennials; the same with the Royal Society. There’s language in Science and in Nature and in the publications of the Smithsonian and National Geographic. They all validate using perennial mixtures is a good idea for humanity.

When I first published on this in 1978, I said this goal was going to take 50 to 100 years to achieve. I warned of no quick fix. As mentioned, at first there was a lot of skepticism. Some thought it was absolutely impossible to have high-yielding perennial-grain agriculture. They saw the roots as being in competition for high grain yield. They did not see them as investments. Sure there is some sloughing of perennial root mass, but unlike the annual, a whole new root does not need to be made every year. During this current drought, all of our perennials are alive while the corn withers around us. Our oldest Kernza field (a relative of wheat), now four years old, is alive and well and weed-free but with no flowering during this drought, so no seed. However, the forage this year, highest ever, can be made into hay, which not only will feed the cattle but reduce the use of ground moisture. And it will come up next year on its own. We believe that if we want high yields, we’re going to have to have perennials because they have a longer photosynthetic period, or growing season. The idea that those roots were going to come at a cost to seed production is not so tightly held anymore.

Our motto here is “continuity is more important than ingenuity,” and we know that this is going to take some more time. We’re making flour out of Kernza now, but it probably won’t be farmer-ready for nine or 10 years. Again, there’s no instant gratification when you’re doing this kind of work.

HF: What is the next step for The Land Institute?

WJ: We hope to attract major funding from the foundation world in order for this to become a global effort. Some money would fund the training of more than 100 PhD-level scientists who could be working in clusters in different parts of the world. We imagine a 30-year effort to get this to the point that it would have a life of its own.

We have estimated that this 30-year effort would cost about $1.6 billion. It seems like a lot of money, but the cost of the subsidy for ethanol for one year is about three times that. In some respects, this is peanuts, considering we could end soil erosion as a serious problem, reduce fossil-fuel dependency to zero, lessen the amount of alien chemicals placed on the landscape, and give the farmer and the landscape the reward rather than the suppliers.

HF: What changes have you seen in sustainable ag since the organization’s founding?

WJ: First off, there has been tremendous growth in the movement, particularly the local, community-supported effort. There are more farms now—mostly small farms, of course. These are the ones who have the right idea of what needs done and are doing it. Most of their farming does not involve the grains so much as the vegetables and the fruits. Those people are our allies and have grown in numbers.

Secondly, more people are aware that soil is more important than oil and is as much of a nonrenewable resource as oil. They believe that if we can keep ourselves fed, we can get through this long, dark tunnel. The permaculture movement is part of it all.

Third, Wendell Berry’s book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club Books) was written 35 years ago. Wendell had intended that to be a corrective, and it ended up being more prophetic. I’ve been saying that book and, of course, his other books have had the largest impact on raising the consciousness of cultures worldwide.

HF: Can you explain what The Land Institute calls Natural Systems Agriculture and the role the small-scale or hobby farmer plays in that model?

WJ: Natural Systems Agriculture is essentially an agriculture based on the way natural ecosystems work. Think about agriculture, especially the grains: You’ve got to tear up the ground or destroy so much of nature’s economy with the herbicides for no-till to get the seed bed for the annual. That idea, that nature should be subdued or ignored, has ricocheted through civilization for 10,000 years as a result of annual grain agriculture.

Natural Systems Agriculture is corrective. Rather than us trying to solve problems in agriculture, we’re trying to solve the problem of agriculture, and that means that nature is not being subdued or ignored but the ecosystem becomes the conceptual tool.

My loyalty is toward small scale. I start with acknowledging the reality that the planet is really an ecological mosaic. There’s no 2 square feet on the planet that are the same. If we are to attend to the kind of detail that’s necessary to save the soil resource, I think it’s going to need a high eyes-to-acres ratio. That means the small farmer and lots of them watching the land.

What is a “small farmer”? That depends on where you are. If you are in Kansas, the small farmer is dealing with hundreds or thousands of acres. If you’re in New England, it can be 1 to 10. This has to do with rainfall, soil quality; it has to do with so many factors across the ecological mosaic. The small farmer is the best hope to counter the industrial mind, which tends to look for the big solutions. The industrial mind has shown itself to be destructive of soil quality as well as community. To me, it’s pretty serious when we put chemicals out there that our tissues have no evolutionary experience with. What we’ve done with the industrial mind is depend on a sufficiency of capital rather than a sufficiency of people.

HF: What’s one piece of advice you have for beginning small-scale, sustainable farmers?

WJ: Wendell Berry talked about this in the lecture that he gave at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in April 2012. He borrowed the line from E.M. Forster’s Howards End: “It all turns on affection now. … Don’t you see?” Wendell was saying that just having morality is not good enough, that one has to have affection for a place, and that means being dug in long enough that you get to know a place, you get to know its weather, you get to know the plants, the animals, the contours. That which you have affection for, you will more likely care for, and that transcends the economic reality. It’s pretty easy if you’ve dug in and you’ve decided this is your life’s work—then the affection will come.

The Land Institute’s mission statement says that when people, land and community are one, all members prosper; when regarded as competing, all suffer. I would say to dig in to a place and become a part of a community, a social network. This is what is happening in the sustainable-ag movement.  My advice is to keep on keeping on with the vision of a sunshine future in mind. I don’t know as I have a thing to add. I’ve learned from the movement that there are a lot of people, young and old, who know the story and what needs done, and they are on it. They certainly don’t need my advice. They know what they’re doing.


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