Can agriculture operate like the natural vegetation originally indigenous to the region?
Thirty-three years ago, as a California genetics professor, Wes Jackson got to thinking about the annual planting, harvesting and re-planting cycle of the American farm — AND about erosion, insects, drought, and chemical runoff’s terrible toll. Remembering the hardy prairie of his native Kansas, Mr. Jackson wondered whether food grains could be grown perennially — just like the prairie’s sturdy grasses. And he set off to find out.
So in 1976 this brilliant and widely published geneticist returned to his roots, literally, and founded a combination farm and think tank called the Land Institute, outside the central Kansas city of Salina. Mr. Jackson still runs the operation from a tiny cabin next to what he calls the Sunshine farm, a 60-hectare labyrinth of test fields. In bluejeans and workshirt, he reclines in a squeaky chair with his feet propped up on his desk next to disheveled piles of papers — a pot-bellied stove keeping the flatland chill at bay. In ways befitting an intellectual luminary — for Mr. Jackson was awarded the prestigious, $250,000 MacArthur genius grant — he takes the conversation in a hundred directions, not all of which the uninitiated listener can follow. For instance he’s been known to say, “What we will be doing is developing elegant solutions predicated on the uniqueness of place.”