Archive for Monday, September 5, 2011


Go Green: Ecology, agriculture intersect at Prairie Fest

September 5, 2011


September triggers migration. Monarch butterflies, blackbirds, pelicans and a whole host of other animals sense a shift in the light and air. One weekend in September, Kansas witnesses a migration of people as well. Hundreds from all over the country and even the world flock to Salina for The Land Institute’s Prairie Fest. They sit on metal folding chairs loaned from the local Presbyterian church in an open-air barn and listen to talks about sustainable agriculture, land-based art and writing, and environmental policy. They sit through the occasional upwelling of dust and whatever heat or rain or cold the season has to offer. And, I can personally attest, they do so with relish. The speakers they hear and experiences they have with like-minded folk are often life-changing.

Founded by Wes Jackson in 1976, the Land Institute has spent the last 30 years exploring the place where ecology and agriculture intersect. Without healthy soils, water and intact ecosystems, humans suffer as well. For one, we compromise our ability to feed ourselves. The Land’s primary research has been to develop a mixed perennial grain crop that mimics the drought-tolerance and high seed yield of prairie plants. They also want to develop a crop that can grow without applications of fertilizer and pesticides of traditional grain crops. According to the Land’s web site, their work is urgent because, “over 75 percent of human calories worldwide come from grains such as wheat and corn, but the production of these grains erodes ecological capital. Our research is directed toward the goal of having conservation as a consequence of agricultural production.” In 2009, staff researchers saw some tangible results. They produced flour from a perennial wheat relative they named Kernza, which biochemical analysis has revealed to be superior in nutrition to annual wheat. Researchers expect Kernza to be “farmer-ready” in a decade. For the past two Prairie Fests, participants have been treated to apple crisp made with Kernza flour following Saturday’s catered supper.

Past Prairie Fest presenters have included Bill McKibben, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and Winona LaDuke. This year’s slate looks equally promising. Brian Donahue, associate professor of American Environmental Studies at Brandeis, is the author of “Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town” and “The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord.” Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated New York Times columnist, contributing editor for Harper’s and reporter for Rolling Stone and author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” Richard Heinberg is a journalist, educator and author of 10 books, including “The Party’s Over,” “Peak Everything” and “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.” This year’s featured artist is Lawrence-based landscape painter and printmaker Lisa Grossman. Participants will also see a screening of the documentary “John Muir in the New World.” Muir author/scholar, KU professor of environmental history and Land Institute board member Donald Worster will give a brief introduction to the showing.

For more information or to register for this year’s Prairie Fest, visit here.

— Kelly Barth can be reached at


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