Numbering Our Days: Wes Jackson's Final Prairie Fest with The Land Institute

| 10/27/2015 8:57:00 AM

Tags: Wes Jackson, The Land Institute, soil, sustainable agriculture,

Prairie Fest 

Over the final weekend in September, Wes Jackson and The Land Institute hosted farmers, environmental advocates, authors, academics and curious onlookers, like me, to Salina, Kansas. Since 1976, The Land Institute has researched, developed and advocated on the behalf of perennial polycultures for grain production. The Institute’s work resonates beyond Kansas to inform global conversations around soil preservation, carbon sequestration and agricultural runoff. After nearly four decades with the Land Institute, co-founder Wes Jackson will begin retiring duties in June of 2016, on his 80th birthday.       

It was fitting then for Wes Jackson to conclude the 2015 Prairie Festival with a Sunday morning call from the 90th Psalm, challenging listeners to “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Jackson’s oratory style favors tight, syllabic bunches which linger in stark contrast to the mile long view outside the Institute’s weathered barn in the Smokey Hills of north-central Kansas. Soil, Jackson argued in his address, time and again, is “as much of a nonrenewable resource as oil.” Each time, he paused, waiting for his point to germinate, but there really was no need, as he spoke to the conservation choir. Still, he preached.

Jackson first praised the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and that organization’s declaration of 2015 as the “Year of Soils,” but openly doubted whether such a push, however well-intentioned, would turn humanity’s multi-century tradition of soil degradation. For support, Jackson traced the long tradition of soil conservation through three canonical Western characters—Plato, Patrick Henry and George Washington—before highlighting Aldo Leopold’s partnership with the former Soil Conservation Service (now the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) in Wisconsin’s Coon Valley watershed conservation project.

Coon Valley, located in Southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, rises and falls, like much of that bioregion, in harsh grades where rivers and creeks have altered the exposed plateau. Intensively minded agriculturists, up until the 1930’s project, planted the Driftless region with little consideration of grade or erosion patterns. Ultimately, by working with the private landowners to conserve agriculture in the region, Coon Valley’s erosion rate decreased. The example of Coon Valley, for Jackson, demonstrates the value of reinstitutionalizing soil conservation concepts in agriculture.

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