Wes Jackson sees agriculture as a problem. That's because it requires plowing, which leads to soil erosion. It also plants large tracts of land with a single species of crop, using large-scale application of pesticides and fertilizer.
Jackson views native prairie as the model for a more sustainable kind of agriculture, and in 1976 he co-founded The Land Institute, near Salina, to find a less destructive way to feed the world. Since then, Jackson has been the institute’s only president. But the visionary botanist, geneticist and author has announced plans to step down from his leadership position next summer.
“I’m going to be 80 years old next June, and the next day The Land Institute will be 40 years old, and so I thought that’s sort of an auspicious set of math,” he said. “You know, this is the time before senility gets full bore. There are realities associated with 80. I feel fine, but I think it ought to be someone that is younger, and knows more — more up to speed on the more recent stuff in genetics and ecology, and so on.”
The Land Institute’s focus is on developing perennial crops that don’t require plowing and planting every year. They could be planted in combinations, or polycultures, so they’d be less vulnerable to pests and weeds.
Jackson understands that revolutionizing a 10,000-year-old activity like agriculture doesn’t happen in a single lifetime.
“It just takes time. That’s the important thing,” he said. “We’ve got to get it through the mind of Homo sapiens that there’s no quick fix to the major problems.”
When he first published his thoughts on what is now known as natural systems agriculture, Jackson predicted the conversion to perennial-based grains could take 50 to 100 years. He now thinks that work is ahead of schedule.
And Jackson is confident that the research he launched is well-established to continue once he steps aside.
“We have a good staff, and we’ve been fortunate with fundraising the past year or so, and we’re in good shape,” said Jackson.
The Land Institute employs 29 year-round workers and additional seasonal employees. That includes seven scientists, who are breeding perennial wheat, sorghum and oilseed crops and working with nitrogen-fixing legumes to provide fertilization for the mixed-crop fields.
The organization has an annual budget of $5.3 million, most of which is raised from a national constituency of individual donors and supporters. Assets — which include 691 acres of Kansas land, research labs, breeding nurseries and a greenhouse — total $17 million.
The nonprofit organization’s board of directors has 16 members from 11 states. They’ve launched a national search to find Jackson’s replacement.
While Jackson won’t be the Land Institute’s president after June, he plans to continue working with the institute and promoting environmental issues.
One thing Jackson is especially excited about is a three-year, $500,000 partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden and St. Louis University. Jackson said they have computers linked to many of the major herbarian and botanical gardens of the world. Their goal is to create an inventory of every species of perennial plant worldwide that might lend itself to becoming a food crop.
“That’s big,” he said, “because that means that ecology and evolutionary biology can come off the shelf. All that knowledge that’s been gathered for 150 years can come off the shelf, and inform a research agenda with the perennials, which it couldn’t do with the annuals.
“If you’re tearing the ground up every year, you don’t get give the soil part of the ecosystem a chance to ‘do its stuff,’ because you’re disrupting it with either a chemical or with a plow or a hoe.”
This story was produced by Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration focused on health issues and their impact in Missouri and Kansas.