February 14, 2011
The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture was celebrating its 20th annual conference Feb. 2-5, but it seems that keynote speaker Wes Jackson wasn’t there to celebrate. Instead, he was on a mission to gather allies for his proposal of a 50-year farm bill, which could supplement the “five-year” farm bills that the U.S. Congress has been passing since the 1930s.
“I’m tired of kicking the 100-foot sponge,” he blared, in explaining his feelings of futility surrounding those short-term farm bills. “What we want is a 50-year farm bill that would use the five-year farm bills as mileposts toward progressively perennializing the landscape.”
Jackson also gave a keynote address at PASA’s first conference in 1992. The event has grown from 500-plus attendees in that first year to 2,000-plus in recent years. In addition to his keynote this year, Jackson also led a workshop entitled “The Necessity for a 50-Year Farm Bill.”
He would like to see the federal government get behind the idea of transforming U.S. agriculture – over the next 50 years – from 80 percent annual crops and 20 percent perennials to an 80:20 ratio that favors perennials. Grains are a vital part of any agricultural sustainability plan because they supply 70 percent of the calories we eat.
This ambitious policy proposal dovetails well with the work that Jackson has been doing at the Land Institute since he founded it in 1976. His mission there has been to reinvent agriculture by replacing annual monoculture grains with perennial polycultures, using the prairie as his guide.
He says we must solve the “10,000-year-old problem of agriculture,” first by acknowledging that it is inherently unsustainable to plow up the land each year. Jackson also noted that while no-till and minimum-till agriculture have had success in curbing soil erosion, their downfall is that they are allowing lots of excess nitrogen to enter waterways, contributing to aquatic dead zones all over the world. The culprit there is annual crops that can’t absorb enough of the nitrogen fertilizer being applied to them.
“Annual systems leak! Those wimpy roots can’t do it!” he exclaimed. “So, consequently we have dead zones. The dead zone didn’t get smaller with minimum till/no-till, it got bigger.”
Jackson showed a satellite image of cropland in the heart of corn and soy country in the U.S. Midwest. The image was taken in early April, when much of that land is bare – just when the spring rains are due.
“That’s the land of the tall-grass prairie,” he opined. “That’s the land that’s providing 70 percent of the calories [that Americans eat]. That’s the land that’s providing the grain for the feedlots. That’s the land that’s providing the grain for the ethanol …”
And the kicker: “That’s the land that has very serious soil erosion … Five-year farm bills don’t speak to that.”
Jackson’s good humor and affability helped him walk a tightrope in addressing a sustainable agriculture audience he called “our natural constituency” for the 50-year farm bill concept. He had both praise for the accomplishments of the movement and criticism about its current state.
“I hate to say this to this group. You’ll probably shoot me,” he began. After a pregnant pause, he offered: “We’re overly concerned about food. Michelle [Obama]’s got a garden. It’s a nice garden. It’s organic. It’s beautiful. We got a Slow Food movement. We got everything that oughta be cookin’. What’s wrong? Because it involves gardens, and organic, and local; meanwhile, the calories feeding us are coming from land that is going downhill fast – literally.”
Jackson gave credit to sustainable farmers for what they’re doing on a small scale, but he harped on the fact that the movement must expand its focus.
“In terms of saving the soil resource and reducing chemical contamination, most of the sustainable has to do with you folks as a ragtag of people who got the story straight. But, you’re small in number, and the kinds of crops you’re growing don’t address that [erosion] problem in Iowa and Illinois, and other places,” he said.
“We gotta have you people as a constituency to save where most of the calories are coming from. ’Cause where we are, we don’t have a sustainable agriculture movement. And 17 percent of the people elect 50 senators – half of ’em. And therefore, the agribusiness, government, exports, all of that dictates the patterns on the landscape – and it’s because we’ve elected to focus on the local only. And accommodating the local only. But, if we’re a country, we gotta have you. We gotta have you. And that’s my plea. And that’s why I’m saying the sustainable agriculture movement is ossified.”
Jackson acknowledged the enormity of the political tasks at hand, given the limited resources of the sustainable agriculture movement and the forces arrayed against it. He recently brought the 50-year farm bill idea to Washington, along with his sustainable agriculture allies Fred Kirschenmann and Wendell Berry.
“You go and you talk to [USDA Deputy Secretary] Kathleen Merrigan, and she’s polite, but you go in and who’s in there – the Whole Foods guy is in there following her around all day,” he recalled. “You got obesity, so you work on obesity and try to get healthy food. Nothing wrong with that, except who’s calling the shots for all that erosion, and all that chemical contamination, and the dead zone getting bigger? Not us. That’s the thing, not us. We’re not calling no shots.
“The paradox is the people that are busy creating the good examples don’t have the energy to do the political work. And the people that do the political work don’t have the nuances associated with the physical work that’s puttin’ it together. So, this is a paradox. I mean, I think we got to acknowledge that right off, but not let it somehow or another just stop us.”
Another component of Jackson’s vision for a future agriculture is that he sees many more people involved in farming. He says the landscape could support as many as 80 million people. But, he stresses that this would not mean a return to back-breaking labor, not if his perennial-grain idea takes hold.
“With a perennial mix – and paying attention to the reality of the ecological mosaic – it’ll have a higher eyes-to-acres ratio – more people watching the land. But, it won’t be the sweat of the brow, thistles and thorns,” he said. “But, arrangements of the movement of livestock, the harvest, the different kind of rotations, and so on. I think that it will bring back people closer to the gathering-hunting experience in a psychological sense, because you’ll have more the psychology of a naturalist than the farmer that has to destroy ecosystems in order to plant a crop. What happens with annual monoculture is you disrupt so many of the processes of the wild.”
“We need a vision for the future, and a vision of necessity that is underscored by possibility. And I think we’re talking about the necessity and possibility of an agriculture where nature is the measure, and the possibility resides in perennial grain crops over vast acreages to stop the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture.
“Now, how do you market that? You market a vision of the possible, and ask for the patience and the funding to support it at the government level. We asked the federal government [for] 50 million bucks. Get her going. We called for something like 80 Ph.D.-level plant breeders, and ecologists and agronomists to get going on a long-term research effort that would see to it that that research program is sustained in the same way that we sustained the space program even beyond getting on the moon.”
Ambitious, yes, but many would say necessary, too.