On Saturday, May 1, members and friends of the Louis Bromfield Society gathered in the Great Barn at Malabar Farm for the 11th annual "MalaBarBQ" and to honor one of the truly great pioneers in sustainable agriculture, Wes Jackson, with the Annual Louis Bromfield Society Award.
Louis Bromfield and Malabar Farm were an inspiration to Jackson as a young man growing up in Kansas and coming of age in the mid-'50s. Jackson dared to dream, and had the courage, intelligence and imagination to pursue his dream in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Bromfield searched in vain for the perfect tillage tool. He, Ed Faulkner (author of Plowman's Folly), and all those who had experienced the dust storms of the '30s knew in their hearts that large-scale soil tillage was a mistake, but what alternative did they have?
No-till was industry's answer to erosion. It made the chemical and farm machinery companies rich, but our rivers are still brown with our greatest export–topsoil.
Worse yet are what herbicides and other agricultural chemicals and fertilizers are doing to our soil's microbial life and the contamination of groundwater. There is not a drop of water on this planet–except for perhaps deep in the polar ice caps–that is not contaminated with agricultural chemicals to some degree. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources cautions fishermen not to eat fish from Ohio waters more than once
The Amish traditionally move west as they outgrow their farm communities in the East and Midwest. Today New York State has the fastest-growing Amish communities, and some are moving into Maine. These states do not have the best farmland in the nation, but are among the cleanest and least chemically-contaminated. Chemically-polluted drinking water from farm wells is one of the U.S.D.A.'s better-kept, dirty, little secrets across the nation.
With degrees in biology and botany, Jackson knew the concepts of biology, the history of science that chronicles the 10,000 years of soil tillage and the desertification of vast areas of this planet from the Great Crescent of the Middle East to the dust storms of the Great Plains that he was born into. With a PhD in Genetics, he also saw the alternative to annual, mono-crop production and the end of annual plowing that left the soil naked in the sun, its organic matter oxidized and soil blown or washed away. Jackson advocated perennial crop production in favor of annual tillage.
In spite of the fact that we are producing more and cheaper food at the cash register than at any time in world history, we are doing so at the price of non-renewable resources–petroleum, minerals and our precious topsoil–that will all be exhausted in the near future. And when we factor in the tax money we pay to subsidize our industrial food supply grown on nutrient-deficient soils that no longer support good health, our cheap food supply becomes an illusion.
History and recent research convinced Jackson that natural, self-sustaining ecosystems around the world out-produce industrial agriculture every time. In 1976, he gave up a prestigious teaching career with its good salary, pension and countless other benefits as Chairman of the nation's first Environmental Studies Program at California State University, Sacramento, and returned to his native Kansas for what some would call a vow of poverty, where he established the Land Institute to pursue his dream of a sustainable agriculture based on perennial, poly-crop production.
Jackson was told it would take him more than his lifetime to accomplish the task he had laid out for the Land Institute. He simply replied that if it took a man a lifetime to accomplish his life's work, he was not aiming high enough.
With 70% of the earth's cultivated land devoted to annual grain production, Jackson chose to start developing perennial grains that would eliminate the wasteful and destructive practice of annual tillage.
Intermediate wheatgrass is a perennial relative of annual wheat and has the potential of being a grain producer on its own. Work is being done to develop that potential and countless crosses have been made with annual wheat which they are working with to refine and develop into heavier producing perennial strains.
In the barn at Malabar, Jackson unfurled a huge banner that must have been over fifteen feet tall and about three feet wide. The beam it was hung from was not high enough to display the full length of the banner. But on one side of the panel was a picture of a two-foot, domestic wheat plant with its sixteen or so inch root system still intact. Beside it by comparison was an annual wheatgrass plant probably not more than a foot tall but with a massive, thick root system close to fifteen feet long. The root system of the annual wheatgrass grows a little each year and is there to probe the subsoil for nutrients and water far beyond the reach of the shallow-rooted, domestic wheat plant.
Plant breeders at the Land Institute are working with many crosses of wheatgrass and domestic wheats. The resulting hybrids are being field tested, refined and improved in a long and painstaking process that is producing heavy yielding, long-lived perennial wheat producers.
Sorghum is a hardy, drought-resistant annual grain and forage crop in North America and food staple in many parts of the world. My neighbors grow it to make sorghum syrup or molasses. It is being hybridized with the perennial species Sorghum halepense to develop perennial varieties.
Illinois Bundleflower is a native prairie legume, a nitrogen fixer, and an abundant producer of high protein seed. The Land Institute has a large collection of this prairie grass that is showing great promise.
The sunflower is another annual grain producer from a family that includes numerous perennials that are being hybridized to produce a perennial sunflower.
A whole range of other plants such as maize, eastern gamagrass, rice, chickweed, millet and flax offer the promise of productive perennial hybrids. Only staff and resource limitations are holding up more extensive development.
Many of the new hybrids are at the point where they are being integrated into larger ecological environments from which long-term perennial mono-crop production will evolve. And it's time to start moving some of them into different environmental and geographical locations where they can be refined and adapted to a wider range of ecosystems.
This all requires a tremendous investment in infrastructure beyond the resources of the Land Institute, but fortunately, word of their work in Salina is spreading. Over the years the Land Institute has sponsored a Graduate Research Fellows program that has supported over 80 students working on projects related to the Institute's work.
Informed environmentalists around the nation and the world have been watching the Land Institute's research and progress for the day when they could use that gift to repair and restore their part of the world's battered agriculture. Washington, Iowa, Minnesota and Kentucky State Universities along with Cornell and the U.S.D.A's Sunflower Research unit in Fargo, North Dakota, are poised to or have already taken steps to join research in perennial, mono-crop food production. After collaborating with scientists there for seven years, the Aussies from several of their larger institutions are pooling their resources to form an extended perennial grain production program down under.
The body of knowledge the Land Institute has compiled and is now ready to disseminate worldwide has taken on a scope far beyond the capacity of their present infrastructure. Huge sums of money are now desperately needed to build a larger facility. With a donor base of 2,000 individuals and foundations, fund raising is a top priority. This is not a high-profile or a glamorous research facility that gets a lot of exposure; it's basic research, sweat, blood and tears–and has been since day one. The importance of their work deserves much more exposure than it has been receiving. Without government support or huge corporate backing, the task of funding the expansion of the Land Institute falls to what some call the third or civil sector, private individuals who can not only contribute money but can also help promote awareness of the importance of such work and build support. For tax deductible contributions and more information on how you can help in this important work, contact:
The Land Institute
2440 E. Water Well Road
Salina, Kansas 67401