MOTHER Talks with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Kansas

Dr. Wes Jackson from the Land Institute in Kansas talks about the importance of polyculture, back-to-the-land and the future of plant genetics.
By Joel Bourne
April/May 1995
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Dr. Jackson at the Land Institute in Kansas.
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Should anyone care to sow the seeds of agricultural revolution in this country, he or she would probably get them from Wes Jackson. For the past 16 years, the freethinking geneticist and his colleagues at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, have searched for plants that will see us through the next century. These plants, Jackson believes, will produce bountiful crops year after year without pesticides or fertilizers. More important, however, they won't need annual tillage, a practice used since men quit chasing mammoths.

Jackson's influence goes beyond mere seeds. In three books and numerous essays, this descendant of four generations of Kansas farmers has excoriated modern agriculture for ravaging land and people. The 58-year-old scientist has been dubbed a "maverick geneticist," a "prairie prophet," even "the father of sustainable agriculture." He dismisses labels with the wave of a callused hand. "I've told people I'm not a prophet; I'm head of a nonprofit organization," he chuckles.

Yet it is hard for Jackson not to sound Isaiah-like when the damage wrought by agriculture has reached biblical proportions. The topsoil that makes U.S. farmers the greatest producers in the world currently erodes at 20 times its rate of replenishment. Iowa, the backbone of the Corn Belt, has shed half its topsoil in the last 150 years, while the nation on average has lost a third. A recent geological study suggests that the world's farmers displace the same amount of soil each year as the glaciers of the last ice age.

The natural fertility and pest resistance inherent in healthy soils have largely been replaced by fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels. Farmers apply some 20 million tons of fertilizer and more than one billion pounds of pesticide each year, traces of which have been detected in the waters of at least 40 states. Concern over the long-term effects of these substances recently prompted the National Cancer Institute to launch a 10-year, $15 million study of 100,000 farmers, chemical applicators, and their families.

Most researchers look toward technology to solve these problems. Jackson looks to nature, specifically the hardy prairie perennials that he hopes one day will replace frail corn and wheat. In less than two decades of selections and crosses, Land Institute researchers have achieved yields of Illinois bundleflower and wild senna comparable to wheat yields in the region. They have demonstrated greater yields in polycultures (mixtures of species) than in monocultures, as well as natural reduction of certain pests and diseases.

These findings prove that a new agriculture is possible, Jackson says—one without soil erosion, without chemical contamination, and with little fossil fuel input. In place of an eroding Breadbasket, Jackson envisions a domestic prairie that nurtures land, people, and community.

To understand the human element, Jackson has focused on Matfield Green, a not-quite-dead ghost town in the Kansas Flint Hills. He calls the project "setting up the books for ecological community accounting." By studying the hamlet as part of the prairie ecosystem, he hopes to gain insight into the decline of thousands of towns that dot the Great Plains.

These towns, he argues in his latest book, Becoming Native to This Place (University Press of Kentucky, 1994), offer the perfect opportunity to repopulate rural America. Twenty-five years after the back-to-the-land movement spawned MOTHER, Wes Jackson calls for a third of the U.S. population to move closer to the source that sustains it.

"The binge the developed world has enjoyed is about over;" Jackson writes. "It's time to find our way home and use what little time is left for partial redemption of this prodigal generation."

We spoke with Jackson as he prepared for his greatest challenge: convincing a skeptical U.S. Department of Agriculture to embrace perennial polyculture research. He may be up to the task. The renowned geneticist was selected as a Pew Conservation Scholar in 1990 and a MacArthur Fellow in 1992. He has written two previous books, New Roots for Agriculture (University of Nebraska Press, 1980) and Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the earth . (North Point Press, 1987).

On the road to Salina I saw a sign that read, "One Kansas farmer feeds 101 people and YOU!" I suspect you feel this is not a source of pride.

That's a sign of failure. You have to ask, so now what is everybody else doing that's so important? What is it that is more important than taking care of the land that sustains us? The Buddhists believe that the purpose of work is to come together with others in a common task in order to overcome our egocentricity. They don't see work as merely a utilitarian thing, rather it's to help us toward a becoming existence.

You and your friend Wendell Berry and other leaders in the movement to reform agriculture have often been criticized as merely being nostalgic for pastoral America. How do you answer that charge?

What are we really talking about when we talk about people being associated with farming? Aren't we talking about being in an environment in which there is a combination of biotic, abiotic and cultural diversity, and at the same time understanding the nature of our source? The idea that the majority of citizens don't need to know where their food comes from, or to know it only at an intellectual level without sensing it at what we might call an emotional level, places our culture in spiritual danger.

Last night I was reading Liberty Hyde Bailey, the grand old dean of the school of agriculture at Cornell University. Here is a teacher's leaflet, dated June 1, 1897, in which Bailey defined, "What is nature study": "It simply trains the eye and the mind to see and to comprehend the common things of life; and the result is not directly the acquirement of science ...but the establishment of a living sympathy with everything that is ...."

This is what we're talking about. It's not a matter of whether there is some kind of utilitarian meeting of physical needs. We're talking about a living sympathy with everything that is. The leaflet asks, "Now why is the College of Agriculture of Cornell University interesting itself in this work? It is trying to help the farmer, and it begins with the most teachable point—the child. The district school cannot teach agriculture any more than it can teach law or engineering or any other profession or trade, but it can interest the child in nature and in rural problems and thereby fasten its sympathies to the country." You see, there's the word sympathy showing up twice. "The child will teach the parent. The coming generation will see the result. In the interest of humanity and country, we ask for help."

We're not talking about a matter of mere nostalgia. We are talking about a practical necessity. We are losing the cultural seed stock. I think that was Wendell's phrase originally. It's the beginning of a decline in the civilization.

Here you have the dean of one of the most prestigious agricultural schools in the country talking in 1897 about the very things that concern you today. How did we get so far away from this ideal?

I'll call it an operating hypothesis. It may even be a law. High energy destroys information, of both the cultural and biological varieties. In other words, with the industrialization of society, including the industrialization of agriculture, we have an eroding of information. The war against cultural diversity, indigenous cultures, subsistence farming—places where there is a lot of cultural information—is the same war that is being waged against tropical rain forests. Cultural information, like biological information, is hard won through disease, death, anguish—a consequence of hard experience. But it is vulnerable during periods of affluence. It just gets jettisoned. It wasn't until after World War II that the benefits of the industrial revolution visited an entire culture.

Look, here is the entire collection of The Land Quarterly , a journal published from 1941 to 1954 by Friends of the Land, "a nonprofit, nonpartisan society for the conservation of soil, rain, and man." In here it tells about two field days in which people were looking at eight soil conservation projects in Ohio. I believe Hugh Hammond Bennett, the founding chief of the Soil Conservation Service, set a stone. How many people do you think attended that field day?

When was this?

I think in 1946 or '47.

I have no idea.

Eighty thousand! Now if we had 8,000 show up at a rally, we would say we've got a movement. But here is passion that affluence has effectively destroyed.

At the risk of reducing this to sound bites, I wondered if you would give me a handful of reasons for abandoning industrial agriculture.

Number one. It creates a brittle agricultural economy. When fossil fuel is gone, it leaves us vulnerable.

Number two. There is a dependency on the chemical industry that leads to contamination of water and soil that ultimately gets back to us. What we've tried to do through chemistry is what we used to do by hand, that, 135 years after Darwin, ignores the implications of a Darwinian world view; i.e., don't put chemicals out there we haven't evolved with without counting them guilty until proven innocent.

Then there is the loss of cultural seed stock from the countryside that makes us vulnerable. I have heard that one of the things that made Americans so formidable during World War II was that when the equipment broke down, there were enough farm boys around who were able to get the equipment up and running again. They knew about motors and drive trains and so on. The Germans on the other hand, had excellent engineering and specialization, but the run-of-the-mill German did not know how to fix the equipment. So that was that.

While most of your colleagues in the field of genetics have enthusiastically embraced the new technology of gene splicing, you have called for a five-year moratorium on biotechnology. Why?

Let's say you have a knife, and the knife is in the hands of a person who cuts and serves homemade bread. Then the knife is in the hands of a mugger. Could be the same knife. In a similar manner the plant breeder may decide to put his or her talents to use for Monsanto.

Biotechnology, like all technology, is ultimately at the service of a dominating social organization. Now if the biotechnologist could be subordinate to the ecological paradigm only, I would not be so bothered. My worry is that something that involves such speed is another example of overrunning our headlights. So I'm cautious. And it is so tempting to the one who comes in and wants to use it for exploitative purposes rather than ecological requirements.

But as a plant breeder aren't you just as tempted by the power of genetic manipulation as your colleagues? What if USDA offered you millions to use biotechnology to establish perennial polycultures?

There is a difference though. You can be infatuated with what you are able to do and be caught up in the elegance and power that goes with gene splicing, or you can see it as simply a tool to transfer genes from one organism to another. I would have to say I would stick to the five year moratorium for myself as well. We really haven't had a discussion about this. What I think we can do is raise the consciousness of the whole culture about the nature of technology. You have to ask who is going to control that technology? Can it be controlled exclusively by the public? Or is it susceptible to being controlled by interests that will exploit people, land, and community. There is the social justice side of it. At the same time, how long will it be before the biotechnologists come up with the ozone hole equivalent? If you start with the idea that we are fundamentally ignorant, it forces us to remember things, hope for second chances, and keep the scale small. All this is part of the discussion.

We have not had ecological interests in mind as we have sought technological tools. Historically the interests we have had in mind have been profits. That is where the knife has wounded us, rather than cutting bread that will sustain us.

You recently began a new project at the Land Institute called Sunshine Farm. It's not permaculture,but it incorporates many techniques of the sustainable agriculture movement, including natural fertilizers, draft animal power, and tractors running on "biodiesel." What is your goal there?

Fifteen years ago when people asked how are you going to feed the world with perennial polycultures, I knew that we needed an even playing field for discussion. If we have an agriculture that runs on contemporary sunlight, and receives no subsidies from the extractive economy, then let's talk. So here are the conventional crops: sorghum, wheat, sunflowers, alfalfa, and so on. Now we've got a standard against which we can judge the merits of perennial polyculture.

So it's a control.

In a way it's a control. We'll just see what these yields are without subsidies and make this as close to a sun-powered system as possible. We'll use the draft animals, and we will use the tractor run on vegetable oil. We will get the land to sponsor the energy. Now we've got something to compare. My bet is perennial polyculture will beat the pants off annual monocultures grown in a sustainable way.

In your new book, Becoming Native to This Place , you speak of the marriage of ecology and agriculture. The assumption that nature is something to be conquered is deeply imbedded in the human psyche. How does society go about changing that?

I don't know. In the book I give a glib history lesson. When the church dominated our thinking we built cathedrals, supposedly to the glory of God, but mostly to the glory of those who built cathedrals. Then comes Enlightenment and the nation-state as that which organizes our lives. This time we built national capitals. That peaks in World War II with Hitler. Then economics comes on as that which organizes our thinking. We still go to church. We still vote as the nation state. But with NAFTA and GATT, Boeing can go to China and GM can go to Mexico, so the nation-state is not important anymore. Just as the church built cathedrals and the nation-state built national capitals, now economics builds the shopping mall to the glory of the gods of secular materialism.

So what's next? I think it's ecology. But this time what will our icon be? Not a cathedral, not a national capital, not a shopping mall. It will be wilderness: alpine meadows, prairies, things not made by human hands. Now that we've recognized the nature of the extractive economy, we will look to nature's economy that is fundamentally renewable. Alpine meadows, tropical rain forests, prairies, coral reefs—those are economies that run on sunlight and feature material recycling.

This is the whole purpose of Matfield Green. We call the project "setting up the books for ecological community accounting." We want to get a sense of carrying capacity and the ecological cost of our livelihood.

As I understand it, you are attempting to compare the economy of the tall-grass prairie to the economy of a tiny prairie community. Isn't that like comparing an apple to a Model A?

An accountant is a student of boundaries. As a student of boundaries one must decide what is relevant that goes through any particular boundary. That's what we are trying to do in Matfield Green with the things we take for granted. Take a loaf of bread. Throw a boundary around that loaf of bread and let's get some sense of what the ecological cost of that bread is if it is made in a Tuscan-style wood-fired oven. See? We call bread the staff of life. We think bread is benign. But bread may come at a great ecological cost, if you count in soil erosion, chemical contamination, fossil fuel dependency, fossil water. Then put a similar boundary around Matfield Green and then measure what goes through that boundary. We've got all the chattel mortgage books going back to 1867. I bought them for three dollars apiece. In there you see the coming of the European mind—the human economy—smack dab into nature's grassland economy.

We have a chance to look at the superimposition of an economy which is the product of the European mind being imposed upon an economy that has been running on sunlight and look at what kind of externalized cost we are willing to pay to put that system in place in order to carry out our vision. As Wendell says, we came with vision but not with sight. That's the kind of thing I want to do down there: to get some idea of the overlay of the European mind on the great grassland community.

Once you throw this ring around Matfield Green and study every in and out, what do you think you will find?

We won't, of course, measure every in and out, but I hope we can reveal where we might take our more important first steps. Will it mean that we remove ourselves? Do we become more community oriented and engage in more barter? Do we hold more community dances and get our solace from one another? Do we sign a pact that says we turn the TV off certain nights of the week and visit with one another? Are we going to trade potatoes for tomatoes? What kind of relationship are we going to have with one another?

It sounds like rural anthropology.

In a way it is. But I want to see how far we can stretch the ecological paradigm. The native prairie there runs on sunlight and it features material recycling.So if the natural ecosystem community is going to run that way, why shouldn't the human community look to see what principles are at work that have allowed those systems to follow certain rules for millions of years.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS was born on Earth Day 1970 as an outgrowth of the back-to-the-land movement. In Becoming Native you have called for a similar movement but on a much larger scale. How many people would you like to see back on the land?

I don't think the countryside can take more than 80 million people. That is less than a third of the current U.S. population. But 80 million people on the land would change the nature of our political economy. It would be a very different world.

How do we teach young people to dig in, as you suggest, to go some place and begin "the long search to becoming native?"

I'd like to get universities to recognize their obligation. I'm amused to contemplate university professors offering a major in homecoming. That's going to expose this culture more than anything. How do you prepare the young to live sustainable lives? We lack the skills. All of our skills in teaching are primarily oriented to a major in upward mobility. If it weren't so tragic it would be uproariously funny to watch the universities thrash around to make that happen.

What words of encouragement do you have for MOTHER readers who are already back on the land?

The people who read the Whole Earth Catalog, Coevolution Quarterly , and MOTHER, that fooled around with ram pumps and yurt houses and communal living and all sorts of things, created cultural information that is still around. I would say that they are the examples. They are the prototypes. They are the people who have been running the necessary experiments. Even though they may have failed, at least they have the ideology. They know the promises and pitfalls better than anyone else in the culture. They are seed stock. Maybe these are the saving remnant.

In the last 25 years we've seen the rise of environmentalism as well as conservatism. Do you see us moving closer together toward a sustainable future or are we heading for the poles?

I don't know. I've tried to understand how this culture has become in such a short period of time the most fundamentalist that it has ever been. It is serious because fundamentalism takes over where thought leaves off. I'm worried about fundamentalism of any type, including eco-fundamentalism, or religious fundamentalism or politically correct fundamentalism. Instead of thinking and being informed by affection and passion for the creation we seem to be shrinking from it and we worship the gods of secular materialism I mentioned earlier. I think Ted Rozak said many years ago that the deterioration of the environment is an outward mirror of an inner condition. Like inside like outside. On the other hand there are some signs that we recognize this can't go on. Until we have the physical manifestation of sustainable livelihoods demonstrated in enough places, we are going to continue the folly. So the good examples, whether they are the good examples among organic farmers, or the good examples among research efforts, or just the good examples of ordinary right livelihood give us a standard. If we don't have those examples I think we'll opt for nuclear power as a way of preventing social upheaval. And we'll do that without giving a thought to whether or not we can repeal "Murphy's Law." How many Chernobyl-like accidents can the world afford? Do we have to have one of the reactors in Chicago go, and lose Chicago, in order to develop the information that says "anything is better than this."

Let's contemplate the future for a moment. Your great-grandfather was one of the pioneers who plowed the Kansas prairie. What kind of Kansas do you think your great-grandson will see?

I have my first grandchild due in February. In 2036—100 years after my birth—the grandchild could be 41. Maybe there will be perennial polycultures on the eroding lands which represent seven-eigths of the tilled land across our countryside. Maybe farms will run on contemporary sunlight. Maybe it will be a world in which cultures everywhere understand that community is the locus for connecting. Perhaps a major feature will be a sophisticated form of tribalism, so culturally rich that flying an airplane or going to a shopping mall will be boring. Maybe we will have a world full of music and art and poetry and tinkering.

Another possibility is that what's happening now in the cities—homelessness, drive-by shootings, drugs—amounts to a faint foreshadowing of the norm. No wilderness. No opportunity to sit on a grassy bank and watch a bee at work. No community warmth. Little love, little affection.

It's within our reach—ecotopia on one hand, urban hell on the other?

I think we have the potential for both in us. We have a chance for the first time in human history to put together an agriculture in which there is no soil erosion, no chemical contamination of the countryside, no fossil fuel dependency. A near totally non-extractive economy is possible in agriculture. That puts us right up against the buzz saw. Because here is the extractive economy on one hand and the far, far less extractive economy on the other.Who is going to support this work? Not big industry. Who is left? Well, there is government. Even though government is tied to the corporate sector, the people still have a chance to say `this is what we want:

What is humbling to me, absolutely humbling, is to realize the choice is in our hands. There will not be any one individual that leads the pack into a safe and sustainable future. It will be a culture that decides, and the grace of God stands ready to assist, provided we honor Darwin's great evolutionary ecological insight.


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