Wes Jackson: A Perennial Revolution in Agriculture

Revolutionizing agriculture with crops that grow like a prairie.
Wes Jackson photo by Dennis Dimick

Wes Jackson is introduced at the 2010 Prairie Festival, with
Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, in the audience.

“Most people want to see immediate results from our work. At the Institute, we like to joke with each other: ‘If you’re working on something you can finish in your lifetime, you’re not asking the right questions.'"
Wes Jackson

Photo by Dennis Dimick.


Just over the horizon, Wes Jackson envisions new ways to grow staples to feed us all. He doesn’t imagine thousands of acres of wheat, or mile-wide expanses of hybrid corn. Jackson sees a domestic analog of the prairie where families harvest perennial
sorghum or sunflowers. He imagines tropical hillsides growing perennial rice intermixed with other grain species. Most promising of all, he predicts commercial use of a perennial relative of wheat, kernza™, that has been advanced by The Land Institute, which he co-founded.

His devotion to the patient work of producing perennial food crops came to him, he says, while he was walking the Konza Prairie, a native tallgrass prairie near Manhattan, Kans., with a group of students in 1977. He had just launched The Land Institute. He found himself drawing inspiration from the vegetation system this prairie soil supported. “Here was an ecosystem that was not experiencing soil erosion,” he recalls. “It had evolved to require low inputs, and to suffer low levels of loss.” Why couldn’t agriculture do the same?

By contrast, a 1977 survey of farms by the U.S. Comptroller General (GAO) had found that 84 percent of U.S. grain farmers lost more than 5 tons of topsoil per acre annually—the maximum limit recommended by soil scientists as an allegedly “sustainable” level. The erosion of topsoil carries nutrients, chemicals, and fertilizers downstream or downwind.

“It looked to me like soil erosion in the 1970s was as bad as it had been 30 years before, at the time the Soil Conservation Service was first formed. I asked myself, ‘How could that be?’”

After study and reflection, Jackson devised the mission that has fueled his career ever since. He would work to mimic the systems of the natural prairie, with its wide variety of plants growing together. He would focus on developing perennial crops that produced edible seeds, and required far fewer inputs than most of modern agriculture. He would address what he calls “solving the problem of agriculture” by creating new ways to produce grain that drew inspiration from natural energy flows, and did not require annual disruption of the soil. His would be an agriculture far more closely attuned to nature.

Jackson credits his daughter Laura, now a biologist at the University of Northern Iowa, with helping him to stay grounded on this path. At the end of a two-year leave of absence, he faced the choice of staying in Kansas, or returning to a secure position at California State University–Sacramento, where he had been hired as the first chair of one of the nation’s first environmental studies departments. “We held a family discussion,” he recalls. “Laura reminded me we should work in obedience to our vision, not to career success.”

Thirty-five years later, Jackson’s most significant success has been the refinement—through painstaking plant breeding rather than gene-modification shortcuts—of kernza, a perennial grain that originated in Turkey and Afghanistan. Often called “intermediate wheatgrass,” it is a very distant cousin to commercial wheat. It holds additional nutrients, and has a low gluten content.

Kernza was brought to the United States by the USDA. Its yield was enhanced, and its stalks strengthened, through selective breeding, primarily by Peggy Wagner at the Rodale Research Institute. Now The Land Institute’s Lee DeHaan hopes to bring it closer to commercial use.

“When I started, the typical seed weighed 3.5 milligrams,” DeHaan told the Salina Journal late in 2010. “Now, our best seeds are 10 milligrams.” Since then, Jackson says, the size has increased to 12 milligrams. That’s a bit more than one-third the size of a standard wheat berry, but it’s productive enough that the Institute sells small bags of the grain at the annual Prairie Festival. Nearby bakers mill it into flour, and a local brewer brews it into small batches of beer.

Prairie Grass photo by Chris Sgaraglino
Read an excerpt from
Wes Jackson's Nature as Measure.

Jackson acknowledges that commercial production of other grains is still a ways off. Meanwhile, he has attracted a strong contingent of doctoral researchers to the Institute, who tackle long-term cultivation of perennial varieties. Jackson speaks of the dire need for sustained funding for perennial research and development. “To get to the threshold level, we would need about $1.6 billion. That’s a fraction of what we now spend subsidizing ethanol.”

It is also a tiny fraction—one hundredth—of what the United States now pays each year for the energy needed to fuel its food system. As oil supplies dwindle, and as climate fluctuates, Jackson feels the efficiencies of perennials will become all the more critical.

“If we make this commitment to long-term research, we will have a whole different way of looking at the land,” Jackson continues. “Virtually all of nature’s systems are based on perennials. This has been in a very real sense our Biblical fall, to move away from that. We have to get in phase with nature’s economy. Why should agriculture depend on an extractive economy?”

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