Archive for Sunday, October 22, 2000

Land Institute envisions natural farms

Salina farmstead attracts attention from respected plant geneticists and researchers

October 22, 2000


— In Wes Jackson's vision for the coming evolution of agriculture, domestic crops mimic nature's own ecological systems.

Perennial fields of wheat, soybeans, and sunflowers grow each year without replanting ending an era of farm cultivation that for centuries has eroded soils. Farmers no longer buy tractors dependent on fossil fuels to till the land, nor contaminate the water with chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

These hardy crops grow together much like the diverse plants that grow wild in nature's prairies. Farm machines harvest these crops together, later separating the seeds of the different crops.

Call it perennial polyculture.

The man behind the idea is a maverick plant geneticist who left behind a professorship at California State University in Sacramento in 1974 to move back home to Salina, for a self-sufficient lifestyle on the land.

But that Salina homestead has since grown into an internationally recognized research farm known simply as The Land Institute. The nonprofit institute has attracted respected plant geneticists and researchers from around the country.

Jackson was named earlier this month in Stockholm, Sweden, as one of four winners of the Right Livelihood awards, known as the "alternative Nobels." The other winners were an Indonesian human rights activist, an Ethiopian scientist and a Turkish environmentalist.

"We have yet to build an agricultural system as sustainable as the nature we destroyed," Jackson says.

Farming wheat fields causes soil erosion, chemical contamination and fossil fuel dependency, he says.

Jackson instead looks to native prairies composed of perennial plants that hold the soil in place and diverse plant species that withstand the onslaught of diseases and insects.

"What we are trying to do is build agriculture based on nature," he says.

Institute draws attention

Located among the rolling hills and wooded ravines south of Salina, the institute has grown from a small farmstead into 370 acres of research plots, prairies and bottom lands along the Smoky Hill River.

The gray-haired Jackson, clad in a warm sweater and blue jeans, seems at home in his rustic office a one-room outbuilding away from the institute's modern offices and labs and their computers and central air and heat.

Here the 64-year-old plant geneticist can work in the cozy warmth of a wood heating stove as he pounds on his old Royal manual typewriter. Above his desk, a chart "A Correlated History Of Earth" is duct-taped to the low ceiling. A manual pencil sharpener is screwed in nearby.

The institute has yet to actually produce a viable perennial variety. The closest thing to a perennial wheat now in the greenhouse was developed by a Washington University researcher, and its yields remain too low for use. It will be at least 25 years before it gets to that point, he says.

"This is not Wal-Mart science," Jackson says. "You don't get instant gratification out of this. That is why we don't feel terrible about ourselves that we have nothing."

Yet he has attracted a cadre of plant geneticists and graduate research students to these rolling hills to share in his vision of agriculture.

Among the most respected is Stan Cox, a wheat geneticist who worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a research adviser on the Kansas State University campus before quitting in 1996 to teach in India. Now he works full-time at the institute, Jackson says, "because of conscience."

Cox says he wanted a job in plant genetics, one where he could work for the good of the public something he says has been lost as the USDA and university research stations have become more business-oriented in developing commercial plant varieties.

At Kansas State, extension wheat specialist Jim Shroyer praises the work of Cox and said he is glad someone is looking at making perennial crops from today's annual crops. If such perennial crops are possible, he says, Cox would be the man to do it.

"The payoff is so far down the road, no administrator is going to let anyone hang on. Some people would say that is not a worthwhile endeavor. ... From a pure philosophical, 'How we are going to sustain agriculture in the long run' in the long run, meaning the next 50 to 200 years then it is not so far-fetched."

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