Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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Reviewing Wes Jackson’s Latest Book: Hogs Are Up

Publication: Kansas Public Radio

Author: Rex Buchanan

When I’m in environmental circles outside of Kansas, I sometimes meet people who know only one environmentalist from here: Wes Jackson.

Wes is the founder of the Land Institute outside of Salina. The Land Institute is a laboratory for research and ideas related to sustainable agriculture and perennial grains, crops that don’t require annual cultivation. Wes is a MacArthur Fellow and was given a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Kansas, where he got a degree in botany.

He’s also the author of several books including a new collection of essays and stories called “Hogs are Up”, published by the University Press of Kansas. The title refers to listening to reports of commodity prices on the radio during his days on a farm near Topeka.

A quick disclaimer. I got to know Wes when I was a student at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina in the early 1970s. We visit every now and then and I consider him a friend. We share a love of the Smoky Hills. I even wrote a blurb for this new book.

When I was a student, I was attracted to Wes’s voice. He brimmed with challenging ideas about the environment, delivered with an almost evangelical zeal and a Kansas drawl. It was the kind of voice that could get in your head and stay there, providing advice even when he wasn’t around, whether you wanted it or not.

This new book captures that voice, in print, uncannily.

Some of the stories outline his early thinking about the environment and sustainability. He describes falling in love with the prairie one summer on a ranch in South Dakota. Compared to the farm where he grew up, Jackson writes, that South Dakota ranch embodied “ . . . the rangeland life, where the plow had no place and was even anathema. I preferred the grassland.” He also prefers the kind of agriculture that attempts to mimic those grasslands.

But maybe the thing I like most about this new book is the portrayals of other people. Wes writes about talking with the runner Billy Mills, a conversation that he regarded as one of his “most precious moments.” And he writes about Leland Lorenzen, a sort of modern-day Thoreau who lived on $500 a year in a shack south of the Land Institute.

These essays and stories resonate deeply, I think, because they cast light on one of the state’s most original, outspoken, and sometimes polarizing thinkers. They tell us something about his ideas and people who influenced his thinking.

Every fall the Land Institute puts on a festival where people come to listen to speakers and celebrate the prairie. You’re as liable to sit next to someone from the east or west coast as someone from Kansas. This book is a good way to get to know a little more about the evolution of one of the state’s most notable native sons, no matter where you’re from.

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