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Learning from the Prairie
Scott Russell Sanders
Many of the New Agrarianism's concerns center on the land community, its long-term health, and how people live within it. Too many human ways of drawing food, fiber, and minerals from the land are, in the long run, destructive of land and people. New production methods are needed, ways that are more sensitive to nature's limits and more respectful of its processes and mysteries.
Scattered around the country—chiefly outside major universities and industrial research centers—agrarian-minded scientists are at work studying nature and searching for ways to draw sustenance from the land without eroding its soils, polluting its waters, destroying its wildlife, and diminishing its natural beauty. A particularly promising aspect of that work goes on at The Land Institute, near Salina, Kansas, where Dr. Wes Jackson heads a team of researchers studying the traits of the native tallgrass prairie to gain insights on developing sustainable farming methods tailored to local conditions. In the work at The Land Institute one sees the intelligence, vision, love of nature, and dedication to place that characterize agrarian enterprises everywhere.
This portrait of The Land Institute and its guiding leaders was written by award-winning author Scott Russell Sanders, many of whose works embrace an agrarian perspective.
In Salina, Kansas, first thing in the morning on the last day of October, not much is stirring except pickup trucks and rain. Pumpkins balanced on porch railings gleam in the streetlights. Scarecrows and skeletons loom in yards out front of low frame houses. Tonight the children of Salina will troop from door to door in costumes, begging candy. But this morning, only a few of their grandparents cruise the wet streets in search of breakfast.
In the diner where I come to rest, the average age of the customers is around seventy, and the talk is mainly about family, politics, and prices. Beef sells for less than the cost of raising it. There's a glut of soybeans and wheat. More local farmers have fallen sick from handling those blasted chemicals. More have gone bankrupt.
When a waitress in a leopard suit arrives to take an order from the booth next to mine, a portly man greets her by complaining that Halloween has turned out wet. "It's a true upset to me," the man says. "Last year I had two hundred children ring my bell." The waitress calls him honey and sympathizes.
An older woman bustles in from the street, tugs a scarf from her helmet of white curls, and declares to everyone in the diner, "Who says it can't rain in Kansas?"
At the counter, a woman wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with three bears swivels around on her stool. "Oh, it rains every once in a while," she replies, "and when it does, look out!"
Here in the heart of Kansas, where tallgrass prairie gives way to midgrass, about twenty-nine inches of water fall every year, enough to keep the pastures thick and lure farmers into planting row-crops. Like farmers elsewhere, they spray pesticides and herbicides, spread artificial fertilizer, and irrigate in dry weather. They plow and plant and harvest using heavy machinery that runs on petroleum. They do everything the land-grant colleges and agribusinesses tell them to do, and still many of them go broke. And every year, from every plowed acre in Kansas, an average of two to eight tons of topsoil wash away. The streams near Salina carry rich dirt and troubling chemicals into the Missouri River, then to the Mississippi, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.
Industrial agriculture puts food on our tables and on the tables of much of the rest of the world. But the land and farmers pay a terrible price, and so do all the species that depend on the land, including us.
I've come to Salina to speak with a man who's seeking a radical remedy for all of that—literally radical, one that goes back to the roots, of plants and of agriculture. Over the past six or eight years I've bumped into Wes Jackson several times at gatherings of folks who worry about the earth's future, but this is my first visit to his home ground. Wes has been here since 1976, when he and his then-wife, Dana, founded The Land Institute, a place devoted to finding out how we can provide food, shelter, and energy without degrading the planet. He won a MacArthur fellowship in 1992 for his efforts, and he has begun to win support in the scientific community for a revolutionary approach to farming that he calls perennial polyculture—crops intermingled in a field that is never plowed, because the plants grow back on their own every year. The goal of this grand experiment is to create a form of agriculture that, like a prairie, runs entirely on sunlight and rain.
* * *
To reach The Land Institute, I drive past grain silos lined up in rows like the columns of a great cathedral; they are lit this early morning by security lights, their tops barely distinguishable from the murky sky. I drive past warehouses, truck stops, motels, fast-food emporiums, lots full of RVs and modular homes; past a clump of sunflowers blooming in a fence-corner at the turn-off for Wal-Mart; past filling stations where gas sells for eighty-five cents a gallon. The windshield wipers can't keep up with the rain.
When pavement gives way to gravel, I pass a feedlot where a hundred or so cattle stand in mud and lap grain from troughs. Since entering Kansas, I've seen billboards urging everyone to eat more beef, but the sight of these animals wallowing in a churned-up rectangle of mud does not stimulate my appetite. The feedlot is enclosed by electrified wire strung on crooked fence posts made from Osage orange trees. In a hedgerow nearby, living Osage oranges have begun to drop their yellow fruits, which are the size of grapefruits but with a bumpy surface like that of the human brain. After the road crosses the Smoky Hill River, it leaves the flat bottomland, where bright green shoots of alfalfa and winter wheat sprout from dirt the color of chocolate, then climbs up onto a rolling prairie, where the Land Institute occupies 370 acres.
Wes Jackson meets me in the yellow brick house that serves for an office. It's easy to believe he played football at Kansas Wesleyan, because he's a burly man, with a broad, outdoor face leathered by sun and a full head of steel-gray hair. Although he'll soon be able to collect Social Security, he looks a decade younger. He wears a flannel shirt the shade of mulberries, blue jeans, and black leather boots that have quite a few miles on them. For a man who thinks we've been farming the wrong way for about 10,000 years, he laughs often and delights in much. He also talks readily and well, with a prairie drawl acquired while growing up on a farm in the Kansas River Valley, over near Topeka.
"I'm glad you found your way all right," he says. "Can't hide a thing out here on the prairie, but you'd be surprised at the people who get lost."
When I admit to having asked directions at a station that advertised gas for eighty-five cents a gallon, he tells me, "The price of gasoline is a symptom of our capacity for denial. We pay for gas based on how much of it is above ground, not how much is left below. We ignore its real scarcity."
Wes and I sit at the kitchen table while coffee perks, a copy machine on one side of us, a wood stove on the other. The walls are lined with shelves bearing jars full of seeds. Every now and again I ask a question, but mainly I listen. Wes talks in a voice as big as he is, all the while fixing me with a steady gaze through wire-rimmed spectacles, to make sure I'm following.
He points out that our whole economy rides on cheap oil, which he calls "fossil sunlight," and nowhere is this dependence more evident than in agriculture. Natural gas is the raw material for anhydrous ammonia, which farmers spread on fields to compensate for the loss of natural fertility. We hammer the soil, he says, then put it on life support. We replace draft horses and hand labor with diesel-powered machines. We replace the small-scale farming of mixed crops with vast plantations of single crops, usually hybrids, which are so poorly adapted that we have to protect them from weeds and pests with heavy doses of petroleum-based poisons.
While cheap oil has accelerated our journey down the wrong path, we set out on that path long before we discovered the convenience of fossil sunlight, according to Wes. Our ancestors made the key mistake at the very beginnings of agriculture, when they started digging up the fields and baring the soil. The great river civilizations along the Tigris, Euphrates, Ganges, and Nile could get away with that for a while, since floods kept bringing in fresh dirt. But as populations expanded and tillage crept out of the river bottoms into the hills, the soil began to wash away.
"The neolithic farmers began mining ecological capital," he explains. "That was the true Fall, worse than anything poor Eve might have done."
Wes knows his Bible, and he draws from history and philosophy and literature as easily as from plant genetics, the field in which he earned his Ph.D. at North Carolina State. At one point he quotes a famous phrase from the prophet Isaiah, then questions whether we're actually better off beating swords into plowshares. Wes is wary of swords, but also wary of plows. Where our ancestors went wrong, he believes, was in choosing to cultivate annual crops, which have to be planted each year in newly turned soil. The choice is understandable, since annual plants take hold more quickly and bear more abundantly than perennials do, and our ancestors had no way of measuring the long-term consequences of all that digging and tilling.
But what's the alternative? How else can we feed ourselves? Wes takes me outside to look at the radically different model for agriculture that he's been studying for more than twenty years—the native prairie. Because the rain hasn't let up, we drive a short distance along the road in his battered Toyota pickup, then pass through a gate and go jouncing onto an eighty-acre stretch of prairie that's never been plowed. The rusty, swaying stalks of big bluestem wave higher than the windshield. The shorter stalks of little bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass brush against the fenders. We stop on the highest ridge and roll down the windows so rain blows on our faces, and we gaze across a rippling, sensuous landscape, all rounded flanks and shadowy crevices.
"This would be a fine spot for the Second Coming," Wes murmurs. After a pause he adds, "Not that we need saving here in Kansas."
The grasses are like a luxurious covering of fur, tinted copper and silver and gold. In spring or summer this place would be fiercely green and spangled with flowers, vibrant with butterflies and songbirds. Now, in the fall, Wes reports, it's thick with pheasant, quail, and wild turkey. He and his colleagues don't harvest seeds here, but they do burn the prairie once every two or three years, and they keep it grazed with Texas longhorns, whose bellows we can hear now and again over the purr of engine and rain. Eventually the cattle will give way to bison, a species better adapted to these grasslands. From the pickup, we can see a few bison browsing on a neighbor's land, their shaggy coats dark with rain.
In every season, the prairie is lovely beyond words. It supports a wealth of wildlife, resists diseases and pests, holds water, recycles fibers, fixes nitrogen, builds soil. And it achieves all of that while using only sunlight, air, snow, and rain. If we hope to achieve as much in our agriculture, Wes argues, then we'd better study how the prairie works. Not just the Kansas prairie, but every one we know about elsewhere, works by combining four basic types of perennial plants—warm—season grasses, cool-season grasses, legumes, and sunflowers—all growing back year after year from the roots. The soil is never laid bare. The prairie survives droughts and floods and insects and pathogens because the long winnowing process of evolution has adapted the plant communities to local conditions.
"The earth is an ecological mosaic," Wes explains. "We're only beginning to recognize the powers inherent in local adaptation."
If you wish to draw on that natural wisdom in agriculture, he tells me as we drive toward the greenhouse, then here in Kansas you need to mimic the structure of the prairie. It's all the more crucial a model, he figures, because at least 70 percent of the calories that humans eat come directly or indirectly from grains, and all our grains started as wild grasses. For nearly a quarter-century, Wes and his colleagues have been working to develop what he calls perennial polyculture—as opposed to the annual monoculture of traditional farming—by experimenting with mixtures of wild plants. Recently they've focused on Illinois bundleflower, a nitrogen-fixing legume whose seed is about 38 percent protein; Leymus, a mammoth wild rye; eastern gama grass, a bunchgrass that's related to corn but is three times as rich in protein; and Maximilian sunflower, a plentiful source of oil.
In the sweet-smelling greenhouse, we find seeds from these and other plants drying in paper bags clipped to lines with clothes pins. The bags are marked so as to identify the plots outside where the seeds were gathered; each plot represents a distinct ecological community. Over the years, researchers at the Land Institute have experimented with hundreds of combinations, seeking to answer four fundamental questions, which Wes recites for me in a near-shout as rain hammers down on the greenhouse roof: Can perennial grains, which invest so much in roots, also produce high yields of seed? Can perennial species yield more when planted in combination with other species, as on the prairie, than when planted alone? Can a perennial polyculture meet its own needs for nitrogen? Can it adequately manage weeds and insects and disease?
So far, Wes believes, they can answer a tentative yes to all those questions. For example, his daughter Laura, now a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, has identified a mutant strain of eastern gama grass whose seed production is four times greater than normal—without any corresponding loss of root mass or vigor.
More and more scientists are now testing this approach. After returning home from Salina, I'll contact Stephen Jones at Washington State University, a plant geneticist who is developing perennial forms of wheat suited to the dry soils of his region. I'll correspond with a colleague of Jones's at Washington State, John Reganold, a professor of soil science who predicts that with these design-by-nature methods, "soil quality will significantly improve—better structure, more organic matter, increased biological activity, and thicker topsoil." I'll learn about efforts in the Philippines to develop perennial forms of rice. I'll speak with the director of the plant-biotechnology program at the University of Georgia, Andrew Paterson, who is also experimenting with perennial grains. I'll contact Stuart Pimm at the University of Tennessee, a conservation biologist who has reported in the journal Nature on Land Institute experiments that show that mixtures of wild plants not only rival monocultures in productivity but also inhibit weeds and resist pathogens while building fertility.
I'll contact all those people, and more, after returning home from Salina. But right now I'm listening to the fervent voice of Wes Jackson, who's lamenting that the United States loses 2 billion tons of topsoil a year to erosion. The cost of that—in pollution of waterways, silting of reservoirs, and lost productivity—is $40 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wes estimates that only 50 million of the 400 million tillable acres in the United States are flatland, and even those are susceptible to erosion. The remaining 350 million acres—seven—eighths of the total—range from mildly to highly erodible, and thus are prime territory for perennial polyculture.
He flings these statistics at me as we drive into Salina for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. Maybe what set him hungering for Mexican food were the strings of bright red jalapeño peppers hanging in the greenhouse among the brown paper sacks full of seeds. Whatever the inspiration, Wes launches into his plateful of burritos with the zeal of a man who has done a hard morning's work. As we eat, a nearby television broadcasts a game between Kansas State and the University of Kansas. Checking the score, Wes explains, "My nephew plays for KU at guard, my old position." When he learns that Kansas is losing, he turns his back to the TV and resumes telling me about what he calls natural-systems agriculture.
"The old paradigm," he says, "is the industrial model, which figures we can beat nature, make it dance to our tune, use up whatever we need and dump our wastes wherever's convenient. The new paradigm, the one we're following at the Land, believes less in human cleverness and more in natural wisdom. The prairie knows what it's doing—it's been trying things out for a long while—and so we've made ourselves students of the prairie."
Transforming perennial polyculture from a research program into a feasible alternative for the working farmer will require many more years of painstaking effort, Wes admits. Researchers must breed high-yielding varieties of perennial grains and discover combinations of species that rival the productivity of the wild prairie. Engineers must design machinery for harvesting mixed grains that may ripen at different times. Farmers must be persuaded to try the new seeds and new practices, and consumers must be persuaded to eat unfamiliar foods.
Excerpted from The New Agrarianism by Eric T. Freyfogle. Copyright © 2001 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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