Wes Jackson: Genius of The Land
Wes Jackson
Wes Jackson

Wes Jackson is a visionary. He is a man who is ahead of his time, a potent academic, philosopher and writer and founder of The Land Institute. His genius has not gone unnoticed, and his name is found on a list of the 100 most influential Americans of this century, published by Time-Life Magazine. He is also the recipient of a $U.S.335,000 MacArthur Fellowship

I first met Wes Jackson on his visit to Australia in 1992. I had read enough of his work to know this would be an occassion not to miss. At the invitation of Ted Lefroy, from the W A Department of Agriculture, I joined Ted and Wes for a three day trip through the Western Australian wheat belt. In the Australian winter of the following year I travelled to Salina, Kansas, to deliver a talk at The Prairie Festival, an annual event at The Land Institute.

The main activity at The Land Institute is research into 'perennial agriculture'. The mid western states, including Kansas, were a vast prairie of perennial grasses and legumes. The grass dominated plant mixture of the prairie, growing on some of the richest soils known, supported huge herds of buffalo and deer. Anyone who has seen 'Dances with wolves' may remember the scene where the buffalo pass by in such enormous numbers that they cause a thunderous roar and the earth shakes. When they have passed there is a swath where the grasses have been flattened and the soil compressed. The soil, in its natural healthy state is elastic, and will quickly spring back to its former condition. The buffalo, having eaten or trampled all the feed, are unlikely to return until the ecosystem of the prairie has recovered.

Under the agricultural regime, the praire has been replaced with annual grasses and crops. They require annual cultivation, perhaps many passes with mechanised equipment, and soils are left completely bare of cover for part of the year. This constant assault destroys the natural health and elasticity of soil. The famous dust bowl of the 1930's was the direct result of changed utilisation and poor management of these productive grasslands. Since that time, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and the Department of Agriculture have poored much research effort and extension into the prairie. There are now thousands of kilometres of contour banks, grass strips and other works to prevent erosion and everyone has access to good advice on improved farming methods.

Despite this effort, soil loss continues at between 5 and 9 tons of soil per acre. Fifty years of soil conservation has, it seems, failed to prevent degradation of the resource at an unsustainable rate.

Wes Jackson lays the blame for this squarely at the feet of agriculture. The annual crops on which we depend require annual cultivations which pound the life out of soil. The energy subsidies which we pour into agriculture, in the form of fuel for the tractors, irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers allow us to continue to produce yields, but the system is unsustainable compared to the persistence of the native prairies which endured for so long before white settlement.

In his book, New Roots for Agriculture, Wes Jackson describes how a new, sustainable agriculture might be developed. This agriculture would use the natural ecosystem of the prairies as its model. The main features of this system are perennialism and polyculture.

Students and researchers at The Land Institute work on long time horizons. They will not see in their lifetime the completion of their visionary task. Having rejected the use of biotechnology, they use conventional genetic engineering (plant selection and breeding) techniques to develop high seed yield characteristics in perennial plants. They also study the plant mixtures in surviving prairie remnants to speculate on how plant mixtures may be devised for a new agriculture.

Other activities at The Land Institute

The Prairie Festival is an annual gathering of people at The Land Institute. It is both a conference and a celebration, with formal presentations in the big barn and scattered workshops through the buildings and prairie paddocks. The festival I attended, in the company of about 800 others was a smorgasboard of innovative ideas on sustainable and organic agriculture, alternative lifestyles, eco-philosophy and joyful sharing of food and culture. Daytime was a talkfest from morning till night and evenings consisted of bonfires throughout the temporary tent city, around which collected spontaneous groups of bluegrass and folk musicians. The interns who provide the workforce at "The Land" conducted tours of the test plots where promising plants from which selections may be made for the new perennial agriculture grew. Resident researcher Jon Piper took us for a walk through the small area of unploughed native prairie which is preserved at The Land.

Another project is "The Sunshine Farm". This is an advenurous attempt to run a small farm, adjacent to The Land, totally on sunlight, and to keep an energy budget for the farm. They can use only renewable energy, including solar conversion electricity, wind and plant alcohol (for the tractor). Ploughing with horse drawn implements is permitted, but the horses must be fed entirely from the production of the farm. It is a10 year project to assess the level of production possible and effort required for a truely sustainable form.of agriculture.

Another project of Wes Jacksons' is Matfield Green. Matfield was a town in decline. Lack of work and the attraction of the city meant that the population was seriously declining, the services closing down and the ageing population grew despondant about the future of the town. Wes has invested a significant amount of his own funds into buying up the derelict buildings. He has convinced many of his friends to do the same. They are attempting to redevelop the township on a sustainable basis and to discover what is necessary to reinvigorate a community and keep wealth in the local area. Eventually, Wes would like to even operate his own currency, exchanging greenback dollars for "Matfield Greens" when visitors arrive, and vice versa as they depart. Several craftspeople have taken an interest in the project and redevelopment is providing work opportunities. Like the Sunshine Farm, they will try to keep the total energy budget for the project. Wes Jackson asks, "what's involved in setting up books for ecological community and county? Is it conceivable that the principals of natural eco systems that inform us on agriculture. might also be applicable to human community". He continues "rather than having sustainable agriculture here and extracting way of life over there, should we not move beyond idea that nature is a quarry to be mined".

Keeping the books has some interesting implications. For instance the local coffee shop come meeting house, the first of the buildings to be reopened as a comercial venture, has a menu complete with the origin and cost of the offerings. The blackboard on the wall lists by name the local grower of the strawberries, the name of the woman who milks the cow from which the milk has come and the fact that the sugar and coffee has come from Guatemala (and the cost).

A sense of place/becoming native

Why would an intellectual giant such asWes Jackson be interested in a parochial project such as Matfield Green? The reason is the importance, for an ecologically and socially sustainable community, of a sense of place. We can only tolerate the destruction of our local environment and community if our sense of ownership and commitment is broken down or replaced by a feeling of mobility, by the intrusion of a homogenous culture in the form of television and the growth of mass-market brand-name consumerism. Wes further proclaims "you don't build satellites of agricultural sustainability and expect them to safely orbit the extractive economy".

A really sustainable society (or agriculture) must be responsive to the infinitely changing nuance of the immediate environment. Prescription agriculture (or the 'cookbook' approach) will never deliver sustainability. The alternative farmer must always remain alert to the changed requirements of his land between the different soil types, aspects, topography and seasons.

Wes Jackson describes this with the powerful words of his friend Wendell Berry, words and ideas which are just as applicable to Australia as they are to the mid-western states of the USA. Berry says, "We came with vision but not with sight”. Wes expands this to say “We came with visions of former places but without the sight to see where we are.” We still have this vision, still carry the legacy of the conquerors. One consequence of this is that the grand sons and daughters of the settlers are the new redskins. Just as white men dispossesed the native, so the new corporate state tells the current generation of Matfield Green to move over.

Wes believes that if we are to become serious about sustainability, then we must get serious about "becoming native to this place". We must put behind us the age of conquest and begin the age of discovery. We must learn the nuance of our place in the world and understand the capability of that place rather than imposing the cookbook on the resource base.

This is a paradigm shift as fundamental as the changes at the time of Copernicus. We thought then that the sun goes around earth. Galileo attempted to get churchmen to look through the telescope and to develop sight over vision.

Wes says "we must give up the mind of the conqueror, forcing nature to give in to our will. We must move instead to accepting nature as the standard by which things are measured".

The failure of The Soil Conservation Service to prevent soil erosion, despite 50 years of effort, thousands of miles of earthworks (control banks etc.) and up to one sixth of the U.S. budget (during the 30's soil conservation was used to employ thousands of mean emerging from the great depression) is called by Wes "the failure of institutions".

The process of change is not easy, as there is a long history of earth abuse. Wes quotes the Book of Job “The waters weareth away the stones & take away the home of man” Our lack of heed over the years is called by Wes "the failure of history & prophecy".

The Amish, a simple living christian sect which attempts to acheive good stewardship and believes that the highest possible calling is to take care of the land, still cause erosion. This is called by Wes "the failure of stewardship"

Mid-western U.S.A. farmers were able to produce 30 bushells per acre of corn in 1930. In 1978 they could produce 100 bushels per acre - surely we must be doing something right. But at what cost? The attractiveness of high yield as evidence of our intelligence and good management is called by Wes "the failure of success".

We can only believe that we are successful if we turn our eyes from the ecological capital which is running out to the sea and the presence of unfamiliar chemicals with which our tissues have no evolutionary experience.

According to Wes, for over 200,000 years of our evolution we were "an ape with a 1530 cubic centimetre brain". During this time we needed no inbuild concept of sustainability. We could simply swing to the next tree to harvest the fruit and leaves and there was always another tree. We developed agriculture only 10,000 years ago, a meare 5% of our evol history. We have not learnt the new lessons required for sustainability and we are "a species out of context"

One explanation is that we live in a fallen world. Wes quotes Alfred Lord Whitehead, we are subject to "the remorseless inevitable working of things". Agriculture, according to Wes, may be our "dramatic tradegy", he says "the plough may have destroyed more future options for mankind than the sword". Jackson describes this as the problem OF agriculture not in agriculture. He says agriculture is a problem in itself.

But Wes has not given up the search for a more sustainable way of life. He describes himself as "intellectual pessimist but a glandular optimist".

The Lessons of the Prairie

The prairie was one of the most productive environments anywhere. Driving up from Matfield Green to Salina with Wes, we talked about the history and potential of the region and he said "few people recognise that this was once a grassland supporting populations of animals equivalent to the serengeti". Just on que, a pronghorn antelope lept across the road, causing us both to hold our breath and I felt my feet involuntarily pressing against the passenger footwell.

The prairie is sustainable, it has been there since the ice age. Some lessons from the prairie may be instructive in the search for sustainable agriculture. The prairie is made up of a mixture of perennial plants grown in a polyculture; like any natural system, it runs on sunlight. Because of the broad species diversity there is chemical diversity which protects the system against attack. Wes says "it would take a tremendous enzyme system on the part of an insect or pathogen to mow that diversity down". Although a grass-dominated system, it also contains legumes which sponsor its own nitrogen. The prairie is non-eroding - its' expansive root system will suck nutrients from parent rock material or subsoil and actually build it up.

Is it possible to build an agriculture based on the praire. Wes believes that a weak mimic of the system is possible, where nature is the measure or standard Again he quotes from Job “ask the fishes of the sea and they shall tell thee” and Virgil “before you plow a patch it is well to be aware of the winds" and Shakespeare (As You Like It) "the forest is the judge" and Blake “consult the genius of the place in all”.

Research at "The Land"

Orginally 28 acres, The Land Institute has now expanded to about 300 acres. To understand why the work of The Land is so different, we may recall that all the major crops of the world are weedy annuals. They produce a small amount of vegetative growth but a high seed yield. Three main strategies used by these plants (alone or in combination) are:

1. they store a high quantity of food in the seed

2. they have many seeds

3. they have the ability to rapidly colonise a disturbed area.

In order to understand how perennials may work in a productive polyculture, Wes Jackson asks four basic questions:

1. can perennialism and high yield go together

2. can a polyculture of such perennials outyield a monoculture

3 can we get such an ecosystem to sponsor its own nitrogen fertility

4 can this polyculture control insect pathogens and weeds

These basic questions inform some others which follow from them. What levels of plant production are sustained on the praire, when are the different plant components active amd what are their roles in the grassland community, what are the proportions of legumes, composites and warm season or cool season grasses, how does the vegetation change over timeand what are the phenological, morphological and phsiologicalogical factors which permit coexistance?

Perennial plants domesticated by humans would be analogs of the native prairie.

Currently much of the work of the land is still in the inventory phase. Criteria used in the search for useful plants is their potential for high seed yield, winter hardiness an the ecological role they may play in polycultures (for example, is it a legume?).

Promising plants discovered so far are eastern gama grass, Illinois bundleflower, perennial soybean, giant wild rye and a perennial sorghum. If more assistance was available, Wes would like to work on maximillian sunflower, intermediate wheat grass and hybrids of perennial rye and some relatives of millet.

Eastern gama grass (Tripsacum dactyloides) is a relative of corn. It contains 27 %protein, three time that of zea maize and twice that of wheat. It has 7% fat and is1.8 times higher in methionine than corn and a warm season grass which fixes small quantities of nitrogen. The rhizosphere. of the plant leaks sugar which feeds bacteria in the soil. In selecting for high yield in our crop plants, we have unwittingly selected against sugar leakage, the photosynthate goes to seed instead. We then add a legume to the rotation. Wes Jackson says, "isn't it better to pay the bill with sunlight - the internal control of a system is more energy and materials efficient - it is better to have it in the system than to add legume and plow it in. Wes speculates that a 50-100 yr timeframe may be necessary to develop this grass for use, a long term vision which few people have the stamina to maintain.

Illinois bundleflower is a native legume which produces seed equivalent to the soybean, with 38% protein and 34% carbohydrate. Work is progressing to select for shatter resistance, with the early results suggesting over 2,200 lbs per acre yield. This seems to suggest a positive answer to the question, "can perennialism and high seed yield go together?"

Perennial sorghum yields 175 bushells per acre. Johnson grass crossed with domestic sorghum can produce a race of sorghum with more sets of chromosomes. There is a large genetic variation within Johnson grass so this work has even more potential. A backcross to sorghum did not survive winter, but F1.x F1 gave winter hardiness.

Maximillian sunflower has a seed with 21% oil content. It appears to have useful allelopathic characteristics which inhibit weed growth.

Some basic questions in trying to farm like the prairie include, "can a perennial polyculture overyield, what types of interactions occur between plant species, in what ways can crop species compliment each other, can we promote positive associations without encouraging negative interactions within polyculture designs

and does overyielding change from year to year."

Overyielding occurs when a crop mixture yields more per unit area than the components yield when grown in monocultures. It occurs because competition can be less intense between plants of different species than between members of the same species, or one species may even enhance or assist the growth of another.

Plants of different species may produce a canopy which occupies different vertical layers, or the roots may exploit differnt zones within the soil. or they may have differnt nutrient requirements and therefore do not really compete (grasses and legumes?) or they may have differing growing periods. Intercropping in traditional South American growing systems have exploited these characteristics for centuries. An example is the mexican bean-squash-maize polyculture.

The contribution of legumes is better understood, but questions still remain about the extent to which fixation of nitrogen may compensate for N used in plant growth and the removal of harvested product.

The idea that polyculture could manage their own pests, weeds and pathogens is commonly the subject of agroecological studies. Allelopathy is one major mechanism. It is the direct or indirect harmful effect that one plant may have on another, through the production of chemical compounds which escape into the environment. Crop diversity may also provide masking barriers that interfer with colonising, movement, feeding efficiency and reproduction of plant-feeding insects, or may provide an attractive environment for predators.

Disease in crops is often greater where crop genetic uniformity is extreme. Therefore mixing species and genotypes within species can reduce their impact.

Conventional agriculture on the Great Plains

Conventional agriculture on the Great Plains of the mid west produces 200 bushels per acre of corn and 20 million acres of high yield wheat in an area with 17 inches of rainfall. Driving around the wheat fields of Kansas and Nebraska one becomes aware of the well heads which suck out the fossil fuel.which allows this agriculture to continue The irony perhaps is that most of this grain is put into feddlots, which Wes has called "the largest cattle and pig welfare program in the world". He continues, "we do this in order to have a combination of cancer of the lower bowel, pollution of ground water due to nitrates, the problem of what to do with the manure, and people driving 50-60 miles in one direction in order to get to work"


The new agriculture of the prairie will take some time to develop, longer than most people have the capacity to cope with or conceive of. Without visionaries, the future is much less rich and optimism much more remote. Our concept of sustainability will always be different, depending upon how far into the future we are prepared to look. Wes Jackson and his colleagues have adopted the longest term view they can in their research. Like Copernicus or Galileo, they do not expect all the sceptics to queue to look through the telescope. Just as we rely on the brave imagination of the frontiersmen of the past, so the earth citizens of the future may depend upon the vision of the researchers of The Land Institute.

Further Reading

Wes Jackson, 1980 New Roots For Agriculture

Wes Jackson, 1987 Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth

Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry and Bruce Colman (eds), 1984 Meeting the Expectations of the Land

Judith D. Soule and Jon K. Piper, 1992, Farming in Natures Image

Ted Lefroy (ed) 1992 Visions for Agriculture, WA Dept of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication 6/92

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