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Annual Prairie Festival tackles food issues at the farm level

Time to step away from annual crops and learn from nature's genius

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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.

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