Archive for Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Land Institute sees role evolve over time

October 4, 2006

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— The founder of The Land Institute says his goal of researching and building an agriculture system that mimics nature is closer to reality - but still decades away from being "farmer-ready."

In the 30 years since the institute began researching environment-friendly farming techniques, founder Wes Jackson says the institute and the public both have changed.

When it started in Salina 30 years ago, The Land Institute tried to do too much by working on wind energy, solar energy, agriculture, waste management and other fields.

In short, Jackson said, "We were taking on the universe and the mind of God."

The technology the institute was using helped officials realize their mistake because the wind machines were old, or prototypes, and weren't reliable.

"They were among the first things we got rid of," Jackson said. "We gradually began to trim back."

Eventually, the institute focused on finding an agriculture system that is as close to natural processes as possible, Jackson said. That focus has brought the research at the institute to a new stage.

"We're now on the cusp of a rather significant increase in the research," said Jackson, who will give the final presentation of this year's Prairie Festival Sunday; his talk is titled "The Next 30 Years."

Some of the most significant changes occurred 10 years ago, when The Land Institute stopped using most student interns and hired staff scientists and began its graduate fellowship programs.

"We started to get traction with scientists on staff instead of students, who were gone at the end of the year," Jackson said. "We found continuity is more important than ingenuity."

Now, Jackson said, the institute could use more staff.

"There's a feeling that if we just had more people and more resources, we could do something," Jackson said.

The Land Institute has a $1.7 million annual budget, with about $3.5 million in assets, including 600 acres of land. It has 29 employees, not counting seasonal help, and supports 19 graduate researchers in universities across the country.

The research yielded perennial wheat in the spring of 2002 and sorghum by fall of that year. In 2003, breeding programs had created domesticated varieties of wheatgrass and the Maximilian sunflower.

But Jackson said it will be 30 to 50 years before such crops are "farmer-ready."

Even if a crop such as perennial wheat were ready, the rest of the plants with which it would share the land aren't ready.

"A wheat released this year by Kansas State University was first pollinated 14 years ago," Jackson said. "The last thing you want is a crash, and it takes years to ensure that doesn't happen. Once the genetics are stabilized, it's time to turn it over to plant breeders."

Another major change in the last 30 years has been the public's attitude toward what the institute is trying to do, Jackson said.

"Early on, our ideas were thought to be crazy," he said. "Then came silence; now, we're seeing increasing acceptance, as this becomes to be perceived as not just a possibility but a necessity."

A 30- to 50-year time frame, he said, "used to turn people off. But people are increasingly realizing that the solutions to all those big problems - climate, population, environmental contamination - are in that time frame."

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