Jackson touts 50-year plan to ‘perennialize’ landscape

pasa-logoThe 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.

Wes Jackson shows off perennial Kernza, a wheatgrass developed at his Land Institute.

Wes Jackson shows off perennial Kernza, a wheatgrass developed at his Land Institute.

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. Read More >

A 50-Year Farm Bill?

The Washington Post’s Jane Black wrote a great Q & A piece in today’s paper with Farmer-Writer-Academic Wendell Berry; Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute,; and Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center fellow and president of the Stone Barns Center. The three had traveled to DC to promote an ambitious proposal to legislators for a new form of food policy in the shape of a 50-year farm bill.

“The plan asks for $50 million annually for plant breeding and genetics research,” and “puts forward a new vision of agriculture, one that values not only yields but also local ecosystems, healthy food and rural communities,” writes Black in the piece, “3 Wise Men, Planting Ideas Where It Counts.”

Says Jackson of the 50-year farm bill: “The idea begins with acknowledging that nature covers much of the land with perennials, and agriculture reversed that thousands of years ago. In our modern times, we’ve offset the consequences with management techniques and fossil fuels that are nonrenewable and contribute to greenhouse gases.”

Black asks Kirschenmann about the approach of using Genetically Modified Plants (GMOs) to feed a growing population. “If you think about it, that approach really isn’t working here,” he notes. “If it weren’t for subsidies, farmers wouldn’t be able to buy the technologies that are supposed to save us. How are African farmers going to afford the technologies?”

Could inside-the-beltway thinking grasp something in a 50-year interval? Both Jackson and Kirschenmann believe so, citing Washington’s apparent ability to tackle long-range issues like climate change and population growth. “They have to extend the horizon. So we think the time is right to add agriculture to that.”