Wes Jackson's Land Institute operates a farm located along the Smoky Hill River of east-central Kansas. Visiting it twice in the last five months, most recently last weekend for the annual Prairie Festival, I now regret my past aspersions of Kansas as flat and boring. It is neither.
It's lovely country, these loping hills quilted by fields of spring wheat, corn and other grains. Dotting the landscape are giant concrete cones called elevators set along railroad sidings. These prairies of the continent's interior are the granaries from which our breads come and our cattle are fed.
Kansas is also a place of big ideas, specifically those of Jackson. He has white hair, thick glasses and the sturdy build of the football fullback that he once was. He grew up on a farm in Kansas, but the more important time of his youth may have been the summers he spent on a ranch in South Dakota where he had the opportunity to study the prairie in its more native state.
Later, after he got his succession of degrees as a plant geneticist and headed university programs in California and North Carolina, he came to the conclusion that agriculture had gone in the wrong direction. The growing of annual crops — those that must be planted every year, as is true with corn and wheat — unsustainable, he says. To survive, civilization needs to return to the perennials and hew more closely to the native ways of nature. Jackson calls it the "genius of place," the title of one of his many books.
With the 20th century had come disturbing trends. Agriculture had become heavily reliant upon fossil fuels and their derivatives, including steady applications of fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides. Jackson calls it agricultural chemotherapy. This, he insists, is not sustainable, if for no other reason than our supplies of carbon fuels are not sustainable as the world's population rapidly moves toward nine billion inhabitants.
Also unsustainable is the continued churning of the topsoil, as required for annual crops, a process that causes erosion by wind and by water. Nitrogen and phosphorous have been carried down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, producing a broad expanse of lifelessness, what is called a dead zone, now covering 6,000 to 7,000 square miles. There the water has been gutted of oxygen, making most life forms impossible.
Returning to his metaphoric roots in Kansas, Jackson in the 1970s created the Land Institute, which is located on the outskirts of Salina, six hours from Denver and three hours from Kansas City. There, he has devoted his life to developing new species of grains that are perennials and operate much like the native species of the prairie. The perennials he wants to give civilization would have deeper roots. The deeper roots would allow the plants to survive droughts of greater duration. The plants he sees would be a polyculture, growing in proximity, not the monoculture of our corn and other row crops.
The Prairie Festival is a time to report on the progress toward these big ideas and a chance to convene great thinkers and kindred souls. Like Jackson's goals, the setting is elegant but simple, an old barn with a dirt floor and gaps and knotholes in the siding admitting light.
To this humble setting came at least 1,200 people this year, the 35th iteration of the Prairie Festival. More than that spilled outside to chairs, blankets and hay bales, keenly focused on the words coming from the loudspeakers.
Wendell Berry was among the featured speakers, it also being the 35th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.
Berry and Jackson can be seen as blood brothers, the elder statesmen of the sustainability movement as it applies to agriculture. Berry has broader name recognition, his name making it into the New York Times frequently in just the last year. They share many thoughts, not least of which is the skepticism about whether the impacts of so-called technological advances have been fully thought through. "American hero," the Times said in one on-line posting about Berry, and in another place described him as "slow-food pioneer."
Wearing a navy-blue cap, a stripped shirt and tan khaki pants, the 78-year-old Berry interacted amiably with well-wishers, friends and acquaintances. He reminded me of Bill McKibben, the siren of climate change action, who is also tall, thin, and rigorous in his challenge to our current technological path.
On the dais, Berry talked in a slow, measured way. He used few words to say much.
"The human economy has to be nested benignly within the ecosphere," he said, one of several times during his remarks that my mind drifted to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
"I've never taken much stock in the future," he said. "The only thing you can do about the future is do the right thing now."
And then this, in talking about a curriculum of agriculture inquiry: "What was here before us European types got here? What was here then that is gone now? What should be here now? And what should we who live here be doing now?"
To the point of our farming techniques, he bemoaned the new fields of corn and soybeans in his native Kentucky, where he has always had a farm in addition to his writing life. His father, he said, had instructed him that the ground needed cover, what the elder Berry had called "haired over" land. That hair is removed in the interests of annual crops, at a cost of eroded topsoil.
Berry described annuals as "nature's emergency services." Conventional agriculture has become 80 per cent annuals, he explained, "and it's an emergency from nature's point of view. You can't run a household or nature perennially as an emergency."
And finally this, what might be the guiding instruction for localized agriculture: good farming comes down to attentiveness, what he called eyeballs per acre. "It varies from farm to farm, acre to acre, the ratio of eyes to acres," said Berry. "But if you don't get it right, everything suffers."
Unlike so many festivals, the ages ranged broadly. Baby boomers were ample, but so were people in their 20s and 30s. To many who are younger, farming is seen as a noble pursuit in life. Their license plates revealed mostly prairie states, but some were from beyond. Strikingly, the parking area was almost entirely absent of SUVs. How strange is that?
Global warming was cited frequently, a dangerous manifestation of a civilization that has overstepped its bounds and an immediate danger with disturbing time lags of consequences. Carbon dioxide concentrations are rapidly accelerating, from 280 parts per million at the onset of the industrial revolution to 340 ppm when Wendell Berry's seminal book came out, now up to 394 ppm.
Scientists warn that even if the heat waves, droughts and torrential storms of today are hard to pick out from the normal range of climatic variability, in another 35 years the fingerprints of rising greenhouse gases will be amply evident. Troubling, those future consequences will be of gases now loaded into the planet pipeline. Global warming is all about delayed effects.
Eric Simon, a physicist from California, warned that no place would be unaffected. "There really is no place to hide," he said.
Simon's own treasured part of the planet is a mountain valley high in the Sierra Nevada. But his study of probable changes has caused him to realize that his mountain valley of the future will be different. "Wherever you go, global warming will follow you. Any place you care about may change beyond recognition."
He has directed his work to decarbonizing the electrical system, something that can be achieved with greatest success by deliberately seeking to localize energy production, as many wish to do with agriculture. It would also make the electrical grid more reliable and resilient.
But for what might be called the "locotron" movement (local + electrons), Simon said there is no road map. He does understand that more formidable than the challenge of science and technology is the challenge of changing societal institutions. Electrical production is now delivered by central planning, and because of the investment of money in that centralized production, there are powerful motives to resist change.
The necessary changes, he added, are unlikely to come from Washington D.C. "The best answer I can give you is to start local," he said.
David Orr, who teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio, also talked about efforts to start local, which he hopes will lead to grassroots' efforts going viral. His town of about 10,000 located east of Cleveland is a Rust Belt city located amid farm country. It's seen better days. But in seeking to revitalize, the town is seeking to become more sustainable. An entire city block of downtown buildings is being rebuilt to LEED platinum standard, the highest standard of the U.S. Green Building Council. The city's municipal utility is aggressively pursuing non-carbon sources, with great success.
While the United States focuses on its enormous financial debt — and rightfully so, said Orr, a different form of debt must also be acknowledge: ecological debt.
He also observed that the political rift in American could be abridged. Common ground can usually be found in short-term, tangible projects. Long-term values of clean air and water and a healthy economy can also be found as people project goals of say 50 years. It's in the middle period where ideology divides people, making discussion difficult if not impossible.
Jackson also talked about global warming, calling this the "great non-renewable carbon interlude" of human history. The Land Institute, he explained, has a point of view that differs markedly from the dominant culture, "that an economy and its agriculture must be operated on contemporary sunlight. That is the way that nature's economy has worked for millions of years."
Over the weekend, Berry and Jackson talked about pessimism and despair, but also optimism. They are, said one, simplified and unthinking reactions, neither impulse particularly useful.
Better is the middle ground. "With despair and optimism, you can put your feet up and don't have to act," said Orr. "Hope is a verb with sleeves rolled up."
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