LUCAS — Life is made up of details. But every now and then, a visionary who sees a bigger picture galvanizes others into realizing there are more important things than the day-to-day details. Sustainable agriculture innovator Wes Jackson is such a person, and his vision sees something most people haven’t yet noticed.
“This is the most important moment in the history of Homo Sapiens,” Jackson said Saturday evening at Malabar Farm State Park, shortly before he was presented with the 2010 Louis Bromfield Society Award.
Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., author of several books and instigator of research into perennial food plants, doesn’t pull his punches, even as he delivers them in a personable drawl. Asked if he’s an activist, Jackson said that it seems to him it’s basic citizenship to try and change the world. Asked about capitalism, he dismisses it as “petri dish economics,” like bacteria proliferating in a scientific petri dish until they run out of space and food and die. Jackson proposes that humankind will have to invent a better system simply because there is no other choice.
“We’re rushing to the edge of the petri dish,” Jackson said.
For 10,000 years, Jackson said, agriculture has built upon an idea of planting and replanting annual crops. Jackson’s organization is working to scientifically cross staple annual crop plants with related perennials in order to create permanent plants that would yield yearly without losing lots of plowed topsoil to erosion nor depleting the nutrients of the top few inches of soil.
Jackson made his point during his acceptance speech by raising a banner printed with the image of an annual wheat plant, its roots about as long as the stalks seen above ground, beside a wild perennial cousin of wheat, whose roots were so long, the banner couldn’t be raised high enough to show the bottom of the roots. The cross that his researchers are currently working on has been dubbed “Kernza” by Jackson, from “kernel,” “Kansas,” the Kansa Indians, and a ‘z’ to make it easier to remember. He estimates having this perennial wheat plant field-ready within 10 to 12 years.
Researchers are also supporting work on developing perennial sunflowers, sorghum and upland rice. Further plants are in The Land Institute’s future plans, as it is building a new 14,000-square-foot research facility with seed storage in its tornado-proof lower level.
Jackson said that although he can’t predict at what point human agriculture will reach an impassable crisis under the current system, he knows it is coming fast and hopes it can be surmounted without massive social upheaval.
“We’re not bacteria,” Jackson said. “If we can feed ourselves, we can get through this.”
The Louis Bromfield Society Award honors the memory of American writer and conservationist Louis Bromfield, who abandoned a successful career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer to start Malabar Farm in Lucas. His goal was to draw attention to conservation, agricultural reform and social agrarianism. The farm is now preserved as a state park. Although Bromfield died over a half-century ago, his influence is felt today in how he inspired later agriculturists to think and understand humanity.
Jackson is no exception. He said he read Bromfield in his youth and was greatly inspired by him. According to Jackson, Bromfield’s vision covered everything from the culture of agriculture to the source of human hope and character.
“He talked about the seamlessness of all things,” Jackson said, “from the artistic to the immediate and the practical.”
Jackson’s acceptance speech was made up of quotes and glosses from the writings of Bromfield. He reminded the hundred or so members of the Malabar Farm Foundation in attendance that, as Bromfield wrote, America’s power is founded on its natural resources. The job now, Jackson said, is to sustain that without deficit-spending the capital of the soil.