Participants in last week’s Prairie Festival, held near Salina, Kans., check out one of Wes Anderson’s native perennial grass fields. Anderson founded the Land Institute 35 years ago to find sustainable alternatives to large-scale annual crops like corn and soy./Photo by Allen Best

Bringing ag down to earth

Prairie Festival looks to restore balance to ‘nature’s economy’

Small food, Slow Money: Sustainable venture capitalist visits Durango

by Allen Best

Wes Jackson’s Land Institute operates a farm along the Smoky Hill River, in east-central Kansas. Visiting it twice in the last five months, most recently last weekend for the annual Prairie Festival, I now regret past aspersions of Kansas as flat and boring. It is neither.
It’s lovely country, loping hills quilted by fields of wheat, corn and other grains. Dotting the landscape are giant silos, the modern granaries from which our breads come and 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 he once was. He grew up on a farm in Kansas, spending summers 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 which must be planted every year, like corn and wheat, are unsustainable, he says. To survive, civilization needs to return to perennials and native ways of nature. Jackson calls it the "genius of place," the title of one of his many books.
The 20th century had brought disturbing trends. Agriculture had become reliant upon fossil fuels and their derivatives, including fertilizers, 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 worlds’ population rockets toward 9 billion.
Also unsustainable is the continued churning of top soil, as required for annual crops, a process that leads to erosion. Nitrogen, phosphorous and other farm nutrients have been carried down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, producing a broad dead zone, now covering 6,000 to 7,000 square miles where the water is gutted of oxygen, making life impossible.
Wes Jackson
Returning to his roots in Kansas, Jackson in the 1970s created the Land Institute, on the outskirts of Salina. Here, he has devoted his life to new perennial grains that operate much like the native species of the prairie, with deeper roots to survive drought and provide a polyculture, not the monoculture of corn and other row crops.
The Prairie Festival is a time to report on the progress of these big ideas and convene great thinkers and kindred souls. Like Jackson’s goals, the setting is elegant but simple, an old barn with a dirt floor.
To this humble setting came at least 1,200 people this year, the 35th iteration. Wendell Berry was among those featured, it also being the 35th anniversary of his seminal book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.
Berry and Jackson can be seen as the elder statesmen of the sustainability movement. Berry has broader name recognition, making it into the New York Times frequently in just the last year. They share many thoughts, not least skepticism of so-called technological advances. “American hero,” the Times said in one on-line posting about Berry, and in another described him as “slow-food pioneer.”
Wearing a navy-blue cap, striped shirt and khaki pants, the 78-year-old 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. “I’ve never taken much stock in the future. The only thing you can do about the future is do the right thing now.”
He bemoaned the fields of corn and soybeans in his native Kentucky, where he has a farm. His father taught him that the ground needed cover, what the elder Berry called “haired over” land. That hair is removed in the interests of annual crops, at a cost to top soil.
Berry described annuals as “nature’s emergency services.” Conventional agriculture has become 80 percent 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.”
Global warming was cited frequently, with carbon dioxide concentrations rapidly accelerating since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Scientists warn that even if the heat, droughts and storms of today are hard to pick out from the normal range of climatic variability, in another 35 years, the fingerprints of greenhouse gases will be evident. Troubling, those future consequences will be loaded into the planet pipeline.
Eric Simon, a physicist from California, warned that no place will be unaffected. Even his own back yard, high in the Sierra Nevada, will be different in the future. “Wherever you go, global warming will follow you. Any place you care about may change beyond recognition.”
Simon is working to decarbonize the electrical system via local energy production. It would also make the grid more reliable and resilient. But for what might be called the “locotron” movement, there is no road map. Electrical production is delivered by central planning, and because of the money involved, there is strong resistance to change.
David Orr, who teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio, also talked about efforts to start local. His Rust Belt town of about 10,000 is seeking to revitalize, is seeking to become more sustainable. An entire cit
y block is being rebuilt to the LEED platinum standard and the city’s utility is pursuing noncarbon sources, with great success..
Jackson also talked about global warming, calling this the “great nonrenewable carbon interlude” of human history. The Land Institute, he explained, has a point of view that an economy and its agriculture must operate on sunlight. "That is the way nature’s economy has worked for millions of years.”
Over the weekend, there was talk of pessimism and despair, but also optimism. “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.”
Other reports by Allen Best can be found at


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