Wes Jackson’s Story
by Arlene Graber of Wichita, KS
As a young boy, Wes Jackson could be found hoeing rows of vegetables — as a teen-ager he rode the untamed prairies of South Dakota, and in school he played football. Sounds like a typical Kansas farm boy — but Jackson is anything but typical.
Tanned from the Kansas sun, Jackson’s broad-shouldered husky frame stands tall, and sports a smile the size of his 370 acres. From appearance one might assume that his comfort level may well be mending a fence, harvesting wheat or breaking a horse — but appearances are often deceiving. Wes Jackson is a scientist — a McArthur ‘genius award’ recipient, and alternative Nobel Prize winner.
He earned a degree in Biology from Kansas Wesleyan, Masters in Botany from the University of Kansas, and PhD in Genetics from South Carolina State University. Sharon Forester, one-time student and former employee of Jackson’s, gives a simple account of how his mind works. “He thinks outside the box.” Given this kind of intellect, one could easily be intimated while enjoying the simplest of conversations, as he spews out quotes from philosophers, and scientists with a few literary figures thrown in.
“My brother tells me,” said Jackson, ‘why do you keep quoting other people, don’t you have an original thought of your own?’” The answer is a simple yes. Jackson has dedicated over 25 years of research and experiments based on original thoughts.
In 1976, Jackson was a tenured professor of Biology at Cal State Sacramento, with a young family and lots of ideas. Reports of the nations land being eroded at an alarming rate caused him to begin thinking about cause and effect. After all, these statistics affected his beloved planet, and would no doubt a century from now, involve his great great grandchildren. Without soil — a nation would suffer.
For a boy from the ‘wheat state’ with a scientific mind, the cause was clear. High-tech agribusiness was playing havoc on our land. Irrigation and cultivating practices that leave the soil exposed to wind and erosion were the culprits. Another thing worried him; poisoning with pesticides and fertilizers. The solution just might be Sustainable Agriculture — the use of perennial crops that re-seed and take care of themselves.
The more he theorized, the more restless he became. He wanted a hands-on application of his ideas. He packed up and headed back to Kansas. Why Kansas when California climate and resources might have been easier on the soul? “Well, there really isn’t any good answer other than I am a Kansan, and my siblings are here,” said Jackson. There was another fact; he and his wife did not want their children growing up in shopping malls and little league.
Jackson himself grew up on what he describes as one of the most diversified farms of its time in the country. The site was 160 acres of sandy loam located in the Kansas River Valley of Shawnee County. They lived off the farm, growing watermelons, sweet potatoes, alfalfa, corn, wheat, and at one time had over 15 acres of strawberries. He is the baby of six children. Although he discounts his childhood as rather uneventful, it created a lasting effect on this Kansas boy.
Even with all of the grueling work associated with farming, young Jackson formed an intimate bond with the land. He loved the soil; he loved the smell, but most of all, the results it produced. It fed the nation and was a precious commodity.
Then he spent a summer on a ranch in South Dakota, and experienced a new revelation. Here was a world where the prairie was left wild and nature dictated its use. To Jackson, it was 4,000 acres of paradise. Years later, he would proclaim the prairie as a model for his life’s work… living on its own without the infraction of society. As much as he loved a growing farm, this experience never left him, “Our job is to care for — not destroy the earth,” he so often says. “We have a beautiful planet, and must give something back to it, not constantly take from it.”
So in a world that stressed industrialized farming, he began to develop what many might have called Jackson’s folly. Jackson and his then-wife co-founded what is now an internationally recognized project — The Land Institute, located just south of Salina, Kansas. While the world of wheat science was geared to annual herbicide-resistant varieties enabling farmers to use chemicals to control weeds, Jackson proposed to eliminate chemicals entirely. Further, he proposed to eliminate the annual re-planting process entirely.
Jackson’s theories dictate that developing perennial grain mixtures that mimic your particular region in relationship to local conditions is the answer. His theories center on the fact that since prairies are sustainable ecosystems of sunlight and recycled nutrients, that require no plowing, as plants grow back each year — you could apply this principal to farming. Applied to farming, it would be necessary to use perennial crops. The root system of the perennial crops would hold the soil in place. This, by effect, would reduce soil erosion, planting and tilling costs, and create a more efficient water use. “We need to get back to nature in its simplest form,” he said.
“Sounds like a reasonable theory, but it is not without problems,” said Jere White, executive director for both KGSPA and KCGA. “While our members think it’s an interesting concept, our concerns are that some of the PR that’s coming from the research out there, conjures up a promise that might not be delivered — anytime soon.” According to the KCGA, Kansas corn crops have more than doubled in the past 10 years, and ranks 6th as a state in corn production. “With these statistics,” White said, “any new type of farming has to be economically sound before it will be adopted by most of our members. They would have to keep producing record crops and I just think we are a long way off.”
Jackson counters by saying “no doubt about it. The first question we have to address in developing perennial crops is — can they yield as much grain as annual crops? We are working to that end. Yes, we are a ways off, however, there has been progress and that is something that should be given careful consideration.”
Responding to record crop performance, Jackson gives an illustration of reality. “You see,” said Jackson, “perception is not always reality.” He uses an analogy from Galileo and Copernicus, who insisted that it was the earth that moved while the sun stood still, when the world thought otherwise. He built a merry-go-round for his grandchildren to teach this lesson. As they sit and pull the rods to make it go round, you have the perception that the center and pivot parts are moving — when in fact as you get off and stand still, you see they actually remain stationary. “The same is true,” he said, “with agriculture scientists, who rave about the high-bushel output in industrial farming as a perception of its merit, when in reality they don’t look at the longevity and recognize that harmful natural gas used for nitrogen fertilizers and insecticides are the reason — and without them yields would plummet. In reality this very practice will eventually destroy our nation.”
Others like Charles Benjamin, attorney and lobbyists for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, applaud the Land Institute in its efforts. Given that agriculture is a complex mixture of science and economics, Benjamin believes that careful consideration should be given to result. “Quite simply, Wes is trying to figure out how to grow foods on the prairie without destroying the land. We need more people like Wes, scientists that are willing to research and think along the lines of loss-of-topsoil and water pollutions and its effect on our communities.”
Jackson coined the name for his research as Natural Systems Agriculture, and says it can be transferred to any area as long as adequate research is devoted to developing species and mixtures of species appropriate to specific environments.
Much of the early days at the Land Institute were spent researching and educating themselves with field trials, but by the early 90’s they were able to report positive answers. They know that perennials are the solution, however, the challenge now is to breed the kind of perennial that will yield that of annuals. They know the root system of perennials eventually out-compete weeds, however, at present it takes several years — so a more rapid method is needed. Jackson produced another original thought — the answer might be polyculture.
In 1993 he started the Sunshine Farm, a 10-year project using 150 acres that lives off its own energy, fertility and still produces food. It is comprised of 50 acres of bottomland for crops and 100 acres of upland prairie pasture. Can perennials be more productive in monoculture planting or by polyculture arrangement? Jackson proposes that planting self-replenishing grains and legumes on unplowed plots in polyculture form, might produce more productivity, as they feed off each other’s merits. He uses plants indigenous to our climate and soil; legume, cool-season grass, warm-season grass, and sunflowers. The experiment includes the usual monoculture arrangement, but also polyculture plots of four different plants. The production data results of each plot will be published within the next two years.
Today researchers in universities around the country are taking up the challenge of perennial crops. Jana Beckman, coordinator for the newly organized Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops at Kansas State University, said, “Its commendable that someone ventures outside tradition to research new crops. It is exciting research and certainly worth a look.”
To get their message to young future farmers, in 1998 the Institute developed Rural Community Studies, at Matfield Green. Its mission is to educate teachers about the prairie and Natural Systems Agriculture, so they in turn can teach young students. At present, the program involves three school districts: Baldwin, Chase County, and Flint Hills.
Also, in 1998 they began the Graduate Research Fellowship Program to provide grants to Fellows, for research at the Institute.
For his twenty-five year effort the progress has not gone unnoticed. His effort with the Land Institute has brought him numerous recognitions. In the past twenty-five years, articles have been published in Audubon, Smithsonian magazines, as well as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Jackson has authored several books, which include New Roots for Agriculture and Becoming Native to This Place.
Jackson has gathered sufficient economical support to render his non-profit laboratory debt clear with twelve-month reserves and has to date six scientists on staff, and will soon hire two more. They have 370 acres of experiment. “I know that I’ve had a lot to do with all this,” said Jackson, “but the key has been to surround myself with people much smarter than me. The young scientists we have here… I just can’t tell you how smart they are.” Still, the success of the Institute is due to a leader with determination to implement original theories and thoughts, and Jackson has been rewarded for his direction of this research. He was named a 1990 Pew Conservation Scholar; awarded the coveted ‘genius’ McArthur Fellowship in 1992, and in 2000 received the Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as The Alternative Nobel Prize, one of 75 selected from over 650 nominations.
Sitting at his desk in what he refers to as ‘his shack’, Jackson gazes out the window at the land he loves. His ‘shack’ is equipped with a metal desk, two chairs, a few books, a wood stove for heating and a manual typewriter, which he uses to write papers and books. It is reticent of the basics — the necessities without the interruption of technology. His house, which he built himself, is not far off and sits on a bluff overlooking the Smoky Hill River. This past summer he screened in a second story wrap-around deck to provide extended hours enjoying the Kansas prairie.
With a far-a-way look, he says, “I want Kansas to get back to Puritanism. Kansans have always been known for independent thinking. You know Kansas has a lengthy history of ‘firsts’. They were the first to pay in blood to keep Kansas as a free state, against slavery. And this all before the Civil War.” Jackson is right. In 1861 Kansas women were given the right to vote in school elections, far earlier than other states, and elected the first woman mayor in the United States at Argonia in 1887. The first dial telephone was invented by Almon Strowger of El Dorado, and the autopilot was invented in 1954 by David Blanton of Wichita — just to name a few.
Given this legacy, Jackson sees no reason why Kansas can’t produce the first marketed perennial wheat crop; why they can’t initiate the first data that shows Kansas is saving its land by puritan agriculture practices.
What will please Jackson more than life itself will be the day when his grandchildren can look from this bluff and see endless fields of grain — all perennial.