Salina, Kansas, may seem an unlikely Mecca for environmental activists, but it is — thanks to the Land Institute.
The Land Institute started with the bold idea that for farming to work long-term, farmers have to reverse a fundamental mistake they made 10,000 years ago when they started growing crops that have to be planted annually.
Now, after four decades developing alternative ways of raising grain, the leader and funder of the Land Institute, Wes Jackson, is stepping down – just as the scientific research going on there is ramping up.
A clear boundary marks the line where an old farm field, long ago seeded with native prairie plants, meets virgin prairie. Grass and flowers reach about chest high on both sides, but old growth prairie is clearly more dense and diverse. Jon Piper, a biology professor at Bethel College, says the real story is underground.
“Even though that has been planted to native vegetation some decades ago, it still looks very, very different, because the soil has been changed,” says Piper. “We may not ever know how long it takes for the soil to get back to its original form. Maybe it never will.”
Traditional farming breaks up the soil, causes run off and depletes nutrients. For major crops, most farmers now practice what’s called “no-till farming.” It saves them from turning the soil every year but requires lots of chemicals.
So can we find a new way of farming, one that mirrors natural, sustainable ecosystems and is still profitable? Forty years ago, the Land Institute set out to find an answer. Piper says researchers are trying to cultivate an agricultural system that works more like the prairie.
"The central premise is to try to develop a form of agriculture, that would be based on perennial plants like this, so you can retain all these soil preserving, soil protecting aspects of the ecosystem," Piper says.
A few feet away, David Van Tassel, the Land Institute’s Lead Scientist on Perennial Oilseeds points out something called Canada Wild Rye.
“It’s a native perennial plant that we’re looking at as a possible candidate for domestication,” says Van Tassel, bending over to touch the tender-looking plant. “We’ve been domesticating several wild perennials as new food crops. It’s just one that’s kind of high on the list.”
The Land Institute has developed a perennial grain crop called Kernza. Scientists there are working on perennial sorghum, rice and oil seed, too. What it doesn’t have, after 40 years, is any kind of perennial plant that a typical farmer can make a living growing. Still, many like Teresa Jones, a biologist from Massachusetts, come to the Land Institute for inspiration.
“I tell you, every time I read his work, or listen to him, it makes me like, 'I’m thinking too small.' I mean, I thought I was thinking big,” a beaming Jones says.
Jones, who worked at the Land Institute 20 years ago, says it feels to her like the organization is just about to take off.
“The Land Institute was swimming upstream for a long time,” she says. “But now, I think it’s right in the stream, and I think that’s going to enable it to move forward with both the ecological and cultural transformations much more quickly, which makes me optimistic."
Jackson, the original idea man at the Land Institute, agrees.
“We’re in pretty good shape,” Jackson says. “I think we have a good structure, and we don’t have any debt, and we have another 13 and a half years assurance for, relative assurance, if we behave ourselves now, of most of our funding.”
The food system today is built on crops like corn and soybeans that require the landscape be transformed to plant every year. Jackson says the idea of perennial agriculture seemed crazy at first. But with solid, steady funding, and the growing appeal of perennial crops, Jackson says the institute has landed some top scientists. It's spread its research far and wide.
“We’re on five continents, now," says Jackson. “All the way from Sweden to Uganda, Australia to Canada ... India. This stuff is out there.”
The sense that the Land Institute is launching into a new era is shared by the guy taking it over, Fred Iutzi.
"It’s the organization kind of graduating into full-fledged movement status, no longer just lone voice in the wilderness, no longer just one man’s big vision," Iutzi says.
Iutzi grew up on a farm in Illinois and was postdoctoral fellow at the Land Institute. He takes the job as President after managing the Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University for eight years.
“My natural instinct is to make sure that there’s good sense emerging from the room that I’m in. I try to play whatever role is missing in the room in order to make that happen,” says Iutzi.
Iutzi says the Land Institute has evolved into a role it just wasn’t equipped for early on. He says fine grain genetic research – and the ability to crunch enormous amounts of data – will accelerate new plant development.
“It’s had a lot of chance now to contemplate the best strategy for achieving the goal that we had in mind, to kind of radically transform crop production agriculture, and we’ve decided that doing really good plant breeding is better than drum circles in that respect,” says Iutzi, grinning.
Which, Iutzi says, doesn’t mean that the Land Institute will stop working on big, liberal social justice issues and ecological conservation. After all, he says, sustainable agriculture by itself won’t save the world.
Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.