Wes Jackson recalls the Topeka farm where he was born, in 1936, as “an agricultural paradise, with an abundance of plants for food, for flower gardens, for beauty.” In that way it’s typical of the Depression and familiar to advocates of today’s local food ethic: Strawberries, blackberries, asparagus, rhubarb, radishes, tomatoes, peas, carrots, onions and forage like sweet clover and alfalfa for horses, mules, milk cows, hogs and chickens were tended by men, women and children who provided the hard work needed to keep crops growing and weeds at bay. “It was local and largely, but not completely organic,” he writes in Hogs Are Up: Stories of the Land, with Digressions. “People ate what was in season,” and got through the cold months on produce canned in summer and meat butchered in fall and winter.
Much of that plant, animal and human diversity has disappeared from rural America. But Jackson, g’60, MacArthur Fellowship-winning founder of The Land Institute in Salina, isn’t waxing nostalgic for a lost golden age of farming. His frame of reference is far too broad for that, taking in deep geologic time and man’s own brief run of days through the eons, all the way back to our Paleolithic origins as hunter-gatherers. Seen through this wide viewfinder, farming (even farming in the Edenic agrarian mode envisioned by Thomas Jefferson on his Virginia mountaintop) becomes what Jackson calls “the problem of agriculture.” Agriculture, in other words, isn’t the answer to our many ecological, cultural and social ills; it’s the root of them.
This realization came early, when, at 16, Jackson worked for the summer on a South Dakota grassland ranch owned by relations. The introduction to the prairie ecosystem that would become the focus of his life’s work suggested two ways to experience land. “One, which became known later to me as the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, was where culture dictated that ground be plowed, worked, and planted,” he writes. “The other, rangeland life, was where the plow had no place and was even anathema. I preferred the grassland.”
For more than 40 years, Jackson led the Land Institute’s quest to develop a new agricultural model based on perennial grains that combine the biodiversity of prairie systems with the high yields of annual crops, all delivered by deep-rooted plants that eliminate tillage and contribute to building, rather than eroding, precious soil. He envisions a biodiverse plant community that’s the opposite of the corn-and-beans monoculture that dominates great swaths of the heartland. It’s an approach that, to borrow Jackson’s typically pithy phrasing, relies more on the cleverness of nature than the cleverness of man.