Last September, one of the reasons I decided to start blogging and learning more about my own role in sustainability and food issues was because I had the opportunity to attend The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival and hear lots of great speakers, including The Land Institute’s founder and director Wes Jackson.  Two weeks ago, Wes Jackson was at my alma mater and I had the chance to hear him speak again.  He is so amazing and the work he does is absolutely fantastic, so just in case you’ve never heard of him or his work, here is a quick overview.

The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas was founded more than 30 years ago to focus on “the problem of agriculture.”  The Land Institute’s mission states that it’s purpose is to “develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that of annual crops.”  Basically they are a diverse group of scientists who are working to develop perennial crops, starting with wheat.  I would consider their efforts successful, as they are harvesting wheat from the perennial wheat grass, but I know they are still working to make it competitive with annual wheat grass.  While I was at the Prairie Festival I had the chance to try bread made from their Kernza wheat (the perennial wheat)–I’m a fan of fresh bread, but no connoisseur, so I couldn’t taste a difference between the type of wheat used and the fact that it was fresh bread, but I will vouch for it!

During both of Wes Jackson’s lectures I have attended he addressed the “genius of the place”–the fact that any ecosystem knows and knew how to rebuild and repair itself before humans came along and tried to “improve” upon it and make it “more productive” by homogenizing what grows there.  One thing that The Land Institute is working to do is to return nature to the perennial polycultures that were there before we decided to plant crops, like corn and soybeans, on the prairie or in the rainforest.  As Jackson mentioned, all of these natural perennial polycultures (ecosystems) had greater net primary production than all human systems that followed.

The Land Institute is breeding perennial grains that will end erosion (below is a photo of the root system of an annual wheat grass plant and a perennial wheat grass plant), stop the need for carbon and natural resources (as it’s a perennial plant, there’s no need to go plant, harvest, and till), and finally reduce the need for chemical fertilizers to a minimum (with such deep roots, the crops will get their nutrients from the soil, not the surface).  These three changes alone will make huge strides towards a new era in agricultural and environmental history.

Here is a giant banner showing the difference between the root structure of annual wheat grass (on the left) and perennial wheat grass (right). My friend in the pictures is there to give you some perspective about how big the root structure can actually get.

I learned a lot about The Land Institute, perennial crops, and Wes Jackson’s work–so I’ll save some of my other notes for another day, but if you want to learn more about the work The Land Institute is doing you can check their website at www.landinstitute.org.

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