After work we went to an inspiring lecture by Wes Jackson, founder and director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author of a new book called Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture. The lecture was part of a series on food and society sponsored by the University Museum of Art and Archaeology. Before the lecture we attended a reception in the cast gallery, where a reproduction of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture towered over us as we talked to a couple of young organic farmers about the challenges they face as they work to bring about positive change in the way we grow our food and feed people in our community. We also talked to another young man who works at the St. Francis house, is taking a few courses in biochemistry “for fun,” and planning to start med school in the fall. He recognized us from Hallsville and was telling us what a wonderful time he had at the community square dance last month, his first time ever square dancing. We recognized several other people we knew from the contra dance group and from the local urban farm movement but by then it was time to walk across the street to Middlebush to hear the lecture. I had heard about Wes Jackson and the Land Institute but did not really know much about their work.
Wes was a good speaker and quite funny at times but also dead serious about the problems facing agriculture, problems which can not be solved within the current paradigm but will require a huge shift in thinking, a synthesis of differing perspectives, such as could be achieved by merging the perspectives of evolutionary ecology and agriculture. He strongly believes that if we are to feed ourselves and learn to live within our means, we must move away from annual monoculture toward “herbaceous perennial seed-producing polyculture.” At the Land Institute, they are developing perennial grain species that can be grown in diverse arrangements. They have so far developed perennial wheat, wheatgrass, sorghum, sunflowers, and legumes that do not require replanting every year; production yields are promising. As explained in the brochure from the Land Institute, “perennial grain crops provide year-round cover, shield soil from wind, absorb moisture, slow surface runoff. Their year-round extensive root systems manage water and nutrients through weather extremes, while hosting microorganisms and invertebrates critical to healthy soil.” Annual crops, by contrast, require lots of cheap energy to prepare the fields, treat for pesticides, manufacture fertilize. For many of us who live in the flyover states, the short-sightedness of counting on biofuel to save us is painfully obvious. He unfurled a poster that stretched across the front of the lecture hall to show the dense root system of perennial wheat next to the shallow roots of an annual wheat plant. The root system of the perennial wheat was at least three times as long and many times thicker than the roots of the annual wheat.
Wes traced the source of our problems back through 10,000 years of extractive methods of agriculture that have dismantled Earth’s complex ecosystems, reducing biodiversity, depleting soils, polluting waters. He pointed out the problems with an economy that constantly pushes unlimited growth despite the reality of limited resources (which he referred to as petri-dish economics). He identified technological fundamentalism (the kind that claims technology will solve all our problems) as the most dangerous fundamentalism of all and defined hard-headed realists as those who “use a lot less information than what is available.” He mentioned his friend and ally Wendell Berry numerous times during the lecture and laid out their plans for a fifty-year farm bill with five-year farm bills as mileposts along the way. And lest we get discouraged by the enormity of the problems facing us, he pointed out that “if you’re working on something you can complete in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”