Archive for Sunday, November 13, 2005

Internationally renowned Kansan on quest for earth-friendly crop

Prairie pioneer leading revolution

November 13, 2005


On a blanket of prairie in central Kansas, Wes Jackson and a team of scientists are toiling in the soil on a mission to transform agriculture.

"This is really a conceptual revolution," says Jackson, 69.

He's in his office on the banks of the Smoky Hill River. On his wall is a poster of the natural history of the earth. Outside is an old car that grumbles before it starts.

Jackson's thesis: Modern agriculture with its annual crops erodes the soil, contributes to pollution and needs to be transformed. Jackson and a team of scientists, who by day often look like simple farmers, are working to develop perennial grain crops that would grow in mixtures mimicking the natural prairie. Such crops would save the soil from being lost or poisoned by herbicides.

"We're out to solve the problems of agriculture rather than the problems in agriculture," Jackson said.

This work, which began three decades ago, has been met with praise and skepticism.

Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute in Salina, talks recently about his mission to revolutionize farming. Jackson and a team of scientists have been working to develop perennial grain crops that would help save the soil and reduce pollution.

Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute in Salina, talks recently about his mission to revolutionize farming. Jackson and a team of scientists have been working to develop perennial grain crops that would help save the soil and reduce pollution.

"It was considered crazy for years," Jackson said. "It still is by some."

But Jackson recently was listed with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, astronaut Sally Ride, architect Frank Gehry and others in Smithsonian magazine's 35th anniversary "Innovators of Our Time" report.

In 1992, he received the MacArthur "genius" grant.

Chuck Magerl, owner of Free State Brewery and Wheatfield's Bakery, has attended the Institute's annual Prairie Festival for years and has read Jackson's work and listened to his lectures.

"He manages to intertwine everything from genomes to soil science to philosophy and sociology in a way that is always entertaining and challenging," Magerl said. "He's a hardworking guy and has his hands in the soil, but his vision goes well beyond the earth of Saline County."

Farm roots

Jackson grew up on a farm outside Topeka. He has long been concerned about the sustainability of agriculture, he says.

Hear Jackson speak

Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, will give a lecture titled "People Speak 2005: Environ-mentally Sustainable Development: Working Together for People, Prosperity and Peace" during Kansas University's International Education Week. The program is at 7 p.m. Monday at the Dole Institute of Politics.

He contributed to the civil rights movement. War and poverty and oppression and the environment are all related, all outward errors of an inner condition, he said. Jackson decided to focus on agriculture.

He earned degrees from Kansas Wesleyan, Kansas University and North Carolina State University. He chaired one of the first environmental studies programs at California State University-Sacramento before returning to Kansas in 1976.

He had some acreage in Salina. And he started his real life's work there.

Jackson is a tall man with silver hair, who is apt to put his feet up on chairs during casual conversation.

The Land Institute, of which he is president, is modest. A storm door in one building is missing a window pane. The offices are devoid of fancy furniture. His mission has nothing to do with getting rich.

Jackson laughs as he tells his fellow researchers that Wal-Mart has been contacting him.

"They're wanting to do greenwashing," he said.

Steven Lancaster, a research technician at the Land Institute, flames a perennial sorghum plot to kill young weeds. The Institute has developed a perennial winter-hardy sorghum.

Steven Lancaster, a research technician at the Land Institute, flames a perennial sorghum plot to kill young weeds. The Institute has developed a perennial winter-hardy sorghum.

Greenwashing is when companies turn to environmentalism as a means of buffing their public image.

Training the young

Jackson has opened the Institute to graduate students over the years. The Institute has a graduate research fellowship program, which awards up to $9,000 per year to students for natural systems agriculture research.

The program is meant to fund research that might otherwise not be done because it's considered too long-term, risky or unnecessary.

The program has helped build a group of researchers who understand the Institute's goals and who can help realize them.

"I think we're getting toward a critical mass of people who are really thinking and working in this area," said Charlie Brummer, an associate professor of plant breeding at Iowa State University.

Brummer said he agreed that changing the agricultural system was essential and Jackson's work was one way to do that.

David Mengel, head of the department of agronomy at Kansas State University, said he respected Jackson's work and shared some concerns, but he questioned whether Jackson's perennial crops would be as productive as current crops. Mengel said Jackson raised worthwhile questions and concerns.

But, "I don't necessarily agree fully with him that some of them are quite as intense a problem as he says," Mengel said.

Stephen Jones, a winter wheat breeder and professor at Washington State University, said there were huge problems in agriculture today.

"This is one approach," Jones said of Jackson's push to find perennial food crops. "And the best way to move forward into the future is to have many approaches."

Jones said Jackson and the Land Institute had detractors because "they're so 'big picture' that they confuse a lot of people and probably scare a lot of people."

Donald Worster, a KU distinguished professor of American history who has known Jackson for years, said Jackson has "created out there in the outskirts of Salina, something that has a worldwide audience."

"He's really been one of the most original, creative people out there thinking about agriculture, ecology and the environment," Worster said. "He's got people from Australia to Sweden listening to what he's saying."

Jackson drives his car straight through the fields where wheat, sunflowers and other crops grow. It's an outdoor laboratory.

Stan Cox, a senior research scientist, stands in the field.

It took years for Land Institute researchers to find the right plant species, he said.

Before 2000, the researchers had put most of their effort into domesticating native prairie species and perennial plants that grow wild in other places. Today, they are also hybridizing annual crop plants such as wheat, sunflower and sorghum with related perennial species.

"We're doing both of those approaches in parallel," Cox said.

The Institute is working to develop high-yield plants suitable for crop farming.

Cox said the plants someday would yield as much as current crops after decades of breeding.

He said if one counted such "productivity" factors as soil retention and resource conversation, perennial grains would be more productive than annuals even before they were equal in producing bushels.

The Institute has many annual-perennial hybrids of wheat and sunflower, and the researchers sort through the plant's offspring to select perennial plants that offer potential of relatively high yields.

There has been progress. The Institute has developed a perennial winter-hardy sorghum. But winter hardiness is only one trait of many needed for the plant to be suitable for farming.

Cox said many of the sorghum plants were too tall, or have seeds that were too small, or other traits that made them look much different from the farm crop, so researchers are crossing them again with annual sorghum and trying to reassemble the whole group of traits.

Cox said, to his knowledge, the Institute was the only group breeding perennial sorghum.

He said researchers at the University of Georgia and Cornell University were mapping the genes that cause perenniality, which could help in identifying perennial plants in a population.

"The plants we have now are much closer to what we need," said Sheila Cox, Stan Cox's daughter, who also works at the Institute.

But plant breeding is a slow process. Genetic engineering doesn't fit the Institute's goals because it generally entails working with a single gene to make a change to a plant. There isn't one gene for perenniality, Cox said.

"Here it's like building a whole plant from the ground up," he said. "Moving one gene around at a time isn't going to do that. It would be like creating a whole house from one brick. For our purposes, it's not a very useful thing."

And Jackson estimates the work will take more than two more decades.

"I won't see the results in my lifetime," Jackson said. "This isn't Wal-Mart science."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.