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Can We Restore the Prairie—And Still Support Ourselves?

Since ripping open the prairie for modern monocultures, we're losing soil and fertility. Agricultural pioneer Wes Jackson says there's another way.

The Grass was the Country as the Water is the Sea.
—Willa Cather

Prairie Grass photo by Chris Sgaraglino

Author Joseph Kinsey Howard describes a spring day in 1883 in North Dakota when John Christiansen, a Scandinavian farmer, looked up while plowing a field to discover an old Sioux watching him. Silently the Sioux watched as the prairie grass was turned under. The farmer stopped the team, leaned against the plow handles, pushed his black Stetson back on his head, and rolled a cigarette. He watched amusedly as the Sioux knelt, thrust his fingers into the furrow, measured its depth, fingered the sod and the buried grass. Eventually the Sioux straightened up and looked at the immigrant. “Wrong side up,” said the Sioux and went away.

Another writer in the mid-1930s described how his grandfather “broke prairie sod, driving five yoke of straining oxen, stopping every hour or so to hammer the iron ploughshare to a sharper edge. Some of the grass roots immemorial were as thick as his arm. ‘It was like plowing through a heavy woven doormat,’ grandfather said.”

To many of us today it seems tragic that our ancestors should have so totally blasphemed the grasslands with their moldboards. But who among us, in their time, would have done otherwise?

A piece of land that once featured a diverse ecosystem we call prairie is now covered with a single species population such as wheat, corn, or soybeans.

Nevertheless, it was one of the two or three worst atrocities committed by Americans, for with the cutting of the roots—a sound that reminded one of a zipper being opened or closed—a new way of life opened, which simultaneously closed, probably forever, a long line of ecosystems stretching back thirty million years.

Before the coming of the Europeans the prairie was a primitive wilderness, both beautiful and stern, a wilderness that had supported migrating water birds as well as bobolinks, prairie chickens, black-footed ferrets, and Native Americans. Never mind that the Europeans’ crops would far outyield the old prairie for human purposes, at least in the short run. What is important is that the Sioux knew it was wrong, and that his words became regionally famous for the wrong reason. The story was often repeated precisely because farmer Christiansen, and the others who passed it on, thought it was amusing. To their minds those words betrayed the ignorance of the poor Sioux. As far as the immigrant was concerned, “breaking the prairie” was his purpose in life.

Agriculture has changed the face of the land the world over. The old covering featured the top level of biological organization—the ecosystem. The new cover features the next level below, the population. For example, a piece of land that once featured a diverse ecosystem we call prairie is now covered with a single species population such as wheat, corn, or soybeans. A prairie is a polyculture. Our crops are usually grown in monocultures.

The next most obvious fact is that the prairie features perennial plants while agriculture features annuals. For the prairie, at least, the key to this last condition resides in the roots. Though the above-ground parts of the prairie’s perennials may die back each year, the roots are immortal. For whether those sun-cured leaves, passed over by the buffalo in the fall migration, go quickly in a lightning-started prairie fire or, as is more often the case, burn through the “slow, smokeless burning of decay,” the roots hold fast what they have earned from rock and subsoil. Whichever way the top parts burn, the perennial roots will soon catch and save most of the briefly free nutrients for a
living future. And so an alliance of soil and perennial root, well adapted to the task of blotting up a drenching rain, reincarnates last year’s growth.

Modern agriculture coasts on the sunlight trapped by floras long extinct; we pump it, process it, transport it over the countryside as chemicals, and inject it into our wasting fields as chemotherapy.

Soil still runs to the sea in nature’s system, as in the beginning before land plants appeared, but gravity can’t compete with the holding power of the living net and the nutrient recharge managed by nosing roots of dalea, pasqueflower, and bluestem. Banks will slip. Rivers continue to cut, as they did before agriculture, before humans. The Missouri was called “Big Muddy” before the prairies were plowed, a matter of possible confusion to those untutored by the river. But it is essential to realize that the sediment load before agriculture could not have exceeded the soil being created by the normal lowering of the riverbed, and what was carved from the interior highlands. It is even more important to appreciate that the amount of soil from the prairie that wound up in the river could not have exceeded what the prairie plant roots were extracting from parent rock or subsoil.

Otherwise there would have been no soil over much of the watershed. What should concern us is the extra sediment load running in the river today—the fertility, the nutrients hard-earned by nature’s myriad life-forms, which broke them free of their rocky prisons over the course of millennia, bathed them with chemicals, and made them fit for that freedom known only in the biota. The solar energy cost of mining these nutrients with root pumps is characterized by a slow payback period, an
energy cost that only geologic time can justify.

Nature as Measure Cover

Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson
by Wes Jackson
Counterpoint Press, 2011, 304 pages, $16.95.

Species diversity breeds dependable chemistry. This above-ground diversity has a multiple effect on the seldom-seen teeming diversity below. Bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates live out their lives
reproducing by the power of sun-sponsored photons captured in the green molecular traps set above. If we could adjust our eyes to a power beyond that of the electron microscope, our minds would reel in a seemingly surrealistic universe of exchanging ions, where water molecules dominate and where colloidal clay plates are held in position by organic thread molecules important in a larger purpose, but regarded as just another meal by innumerable microscopic invertebrates. The action begins when roots decay and above ground residues break down, and the released nutrients begin their downward tumble through soil catacombs to start all over again. And we who stand above in thoughtful examination, all the while smelling and rolling fresh dirt between our fingers and thumbs, distill these myriads of action into one concept—soil health or balance—and leave it at that.

Traditional agriculture coasted on the accumulated principal and interest hard-earned by nature’s life-forms over those millions of years of adjustment to dryness, fire, and grinding ice.

Modern agriculture coasts on the sunlight trapped by floras long extinct; we pump it, process it, transport it over the countryside as chemicals, and inject it into our wasting fields as chemotherapy.

Is there any possible return to a system that is at once self-renewing like the prairie or forest and yet capable of supporting the current and expanding human population? I think there is.

Then we watch the fields respond with an unsurpassed vigor, and we feel well informed on the subject of agronomics. That we can feed billions is less a sign of nature’s renewable bounty and of our knowledge than a sign of her forgiveness and of our own discounting of the future. For how opposite could monoculture of annuals be from what nature prefers? Both the roots and the above-ground parts of annuals die every year; thus, throughout much of the calendar the mechanical grip on the soil must rely on death rather than life. Mechanical disturbance, powered by an ancient flora, imposed by a mined metal, may make weed control effective, but the farm far from weatherproof. In the course of it all, soil compacts, crumb structure declines, soil porosity decreases, and the wick effect for pulling moisture down diminishes.

Monoculture means a decline in the range of invertebrate and microbial forms. Microbial specialists with narrow enzyme systems make such specific demands that just any old crop won’t do. We do manage some diversity through crop rotation, but from the point of view of various microbes, it is probably a poor substitute for the greater diversity that was always there on the prairie. Monoculture means that botanical and hence chemical diversity above ground is also absent. This invites epidemics of pathogens or epidemics of grazing by insect populations, which in monocultures spend most of their energy reproducing, eating, and growing. Insects are better controlled if they are forced to spend a good portion of their energy budget buzzing around, hunting for the plants they evolved to eat among the many species in a polyculture.

Some of the activity of the virgin sod can be found in the human-managed fields, but plowing sharply reduced many of these soil qualities. Had too much been destroyed, of course, we would not have food today. But then who can say that our great-grandchildren will have it in 2080? It is hard to quantify exactly what happened when the heart of America was ripped open, but when the share made its zipper sound, the wisdom that the prairie had accumulated over millions of years was destroyed in favor of the simpler, human-directed system.

Where does all this leave us? Is there any possible return to a system that is at once self-renewing like the prairie or forest and yet capable of supporting the current and expanding human population? I think there is.

Much of our scientific knowledge and the narrow technical application of science has contributed to the modern agricultural problem. Nevertheless, because of advances in biology over the last half-century, I think we have the opportunity to develop a truly sustainable agriculture based on the polyculture of perennials. This would be an agriculture in which soil erosion is so small that it is detectable only by the most sophisticated equipment, an agriculture that is chemical-free or nearly so, and certainly an agriculture that is scarcely demanding of fossil fuel.

We are fortunate in this country to have a large and sophisticated biological research establishment and the know-how to develop high-yielding, seed-producing polycultures out of some of our wild species.

Conventional agriculture, which features annuals in monoculture, is nearly opposite to the original prairie or forest, which feature mixtures of perennials.

At The Land Institute, we are working on the development of mixed perennial grain crops. We are interested in simulating the old prairie or in building domestic prairies for the future. Conventional agriculture, which features annuals in monoculture, is nearly opposite to the original prairie or forest, which feature mixtures of perennials. If we could build domestic prairies we might be able one day to have high-yielding fields that are planted only once every twenty years or so. After the fields had been established, we would need only to harvest the crop, relying on species diversity to take care of insects, pathogens, and fertility.

TOC Wes Jackson
The YES! Breakthrough 15:

Wes Jackson, revolutionizing agriculture with crops that
grow like a prairie.

This of course is not the entire answer to the total agricultural problem, much of which involves not only a different socioeconomic and political posture, but a religious dimension as well. But breeding new crops from native plants selected from nature’s abundance and simulating the presettlement botanical complexity of a region should make it easier for us to solve many agricultural problems.

As civilizations have flourished, many upland landscapes that supported them have died, and desert and mudflat wastelands have developed. But civilizations have passed on accumulated knowledge, and we can say without exaggeration that these wastelands are the price paid for the accumulated knowledge. In our century this knowledge has restorative potential. The goal to develop a truly sustainable food supply could start a trend exactly opposite to that which we have followed on the globe since we stepped onto the agricultural treadmill some ten millennia ago.

Aldo Leopold lamented that “no living man will see the long-grass prairie, where a sea of prairie flowers lapped at the stirrups of the pioneer.” Many share his lament, for what are left are prairie islands, far too small to be counted as a “sea.” Essentially all this vast region, a million square miles, was turned under to make our Corn Belt and Breadbasket. But now the grandchildren of pioneers have the opportunity to establish a new sea of perennial prairie flowers, the product of accumulated
scientific knowledge, their own cleverness, and the wisdom of the prairie.


This essay is excerpted for YES! Magazine from Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson, published by Counterpoint Press, 2011. Wes is president of The Land Institute and one of 15 honorees in The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES!,

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