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Food Fight: Local Ways

Healthy farms mimic natural ecosystem

Small farms may survive with the kind of growing and marketing innovations examined in the main article, but if world agriculture is going to feed 6.2 billion hungry mouths, larger-scale farms also will be necessary. The Land Institute is a place that is answering questions about how big farms can be managed sustainably.

The town of Salina perches on the banks of the Smoky Hill River in the middle of Kansas, where the prairie segues into high plains. On its outskirts sits the Land Institute, a Midwestern farm hooked up to computers and database software to become a research center. Behind the one-story main office building are several greenhouses and a big, dark and shining photovoltaic array aimed south at the sun. Nearby are fields with rows marked with stakes and identification tags and planted with various crops. At the far edge of the complex is a large tract of untouched prairie, where barn swallows swoop and dive over colorful, tall grass wildflowers.

The Land Institute just celebrated its 25th birthday. In 1976, Wes Jackson and his wife, Dana, abandoned careers in academics to pursue their vision of a natural farming system based on perennial crops. At the outset, Jackson set himself and the institute they founded a 50-year timeframe for proving and demonstrating that there is a better alternative to the wasteful and destructive ways of conventional agriculture.

By the time Jackson began his research, large farms in Kansas and elsewhere in the Midwest and the wider world had developed into operations heavily dependent on petrochemicals and overuse of the local water supply. As an academic, Jackson had read a master’s thesis written in the 1930s that compared a never-plowed native prairie with an adjacent wheat field cultivated for decades. The student, William Noll, found that the native prairie allocated the rainwater over the course of a year -- a Dust Bowl year that turned out to be the driest on record. Even though there were plants that died, essentially all the perennial species survived. The nearby wheat field died off entirely. Noll concluded that the prairie is a “system” that has evolved a natural water conservation program.

“Now if you go to another spot in the ecological mosaic of the planet, the tropical rain forest,” Jackson pointed out, “water is the nemesis of fertility, with average rainfall of 300 inches a year. There you have a system designed to pump huge quantities of water back up into the atmosphere, the opposite of what the prairie does. Each place has developed a system appropriate to its nature.”

What Jackson calls “Homo the Homogenizer” comes along, with an abundance of fossil fuel, and changes all these diverse environments to meet his expectations rather than trying to meet the expectations of the landscape. “The ‘breadbasket’ of the world is primarily grasslands; the human is primarily a grass seed eater. At the Land Institute we ask, ‘What will nature require of us here? What will nature help us do?’ That’s our research agenda,” Jackson said.

Conforming to natural laws

The nature-friendly alternative out on the Great Plains would be a mix of perennial food grains, derived from adapting conventional annual crops plus domesticating wild perennials, according to Jackson. The key advantages would be ecological stability and grain yields Jackson hopes will be as good as those achieved with annual crops. Ecological objectives would be attained by ending the huge problem of soil erosion, since annual plowing would no longer be needed, and by ending the pollution caused by agrochemicals.

“If you want to farm sustainably,” Jackson said, “you have got to make your farming conform to the natural laws that govern the local ecosystem. You’ve got to farm with both plants and animals in as great a diversity as possible, you’ve got to conserve fertility, recycle wastes, keep the ground covered, etc. -- fit the farming to the farm, not to the available technology or the market. In short, maintain a proper connection between the domestic and the wild.”

Specific research at the Land Institute has focused on developing mixed perennial grain crops as food for humans where farmers use nature as a standard or measure in making their agronomic decisions. “The prairie, left alone,” Jackson said, “recycles materials, sponsors its own fertility, runs on contemporary sunlight and increases biodiversity.” Present agricultural systems do the opposite: They erode and degrade ecological capital as they provide for human needs. This is the “problem of agriculture,” introduced when our ancestors made the transition from foraging in the wild to sowing food crops millennia ago. “Our research suggests it is now possible over the next quarter-century to solve this 10,000-year-old problem,” said Jackson.

A recent project of the Land Institute is a feasibility study that involved running a farm for 10 years without using fossil fuels. Marty Bender heads the Sunshine Farm Project.

Sunshine Farm contains 50 acres of bottomland crops and 100 acres of upland pasture, mostly native prairie. The farm has several tractors, a full array of implements, farm buildings and grain bins. Crops and animals on the farm are representative of plains agriculture. Sunshine Farm uses renewable energy technologies and applies innovative farm practices to conventional crops and animals.

The renewable energy technologies used on the farm include draft horses, a biodiesel-fueled tractor and photovoltaics for providing electricity. Biodiesel fuel is made solely from plants. The farm crops are wheat, milo, sunflowers and alfalfa. Farm animals include chickens for broilers and eggs, some longhorns for beef, horses for the hard pulling.

The last year of field study for the farm was 2001. Comprehensive data on the energy, materials and labor and the results of the 10 years of operation are being tabulated and put together for publication. Sunshine Farm’s goal is to calculate the amount of productive capacity a sustainable farm must devote to its own fuel and fertility. With this information, a more effective national policy could be formulated for the transition of agriculture to renewable energy.

Bender said that overall there was no decline in soil nutrition over the 10-year period. He said the economic profitability of the farm is really not a pertinent result, because the current economic system does not reflect the ecological costs that will be important in a post-fossil-fuel era. “Energetics is far more important than economics for this project,” Bender said. The aim of the farm project is to provide an extensive computer database on the energy, labor and materials required for a farm to run on sunlight alone.

The value of place

Another element of the Land Institute’s approach to rural economies and life is the Matfield Green Consortium for Place-Based Education, based in the Kansas town of Matfield Green in Chase County, in the Flint Hills. This program, funded by the Annenberg Foundation with a Rural Challenge Grant, translates the vision of the Land Institute into instructional programs for students with the aim of fostering sustainable communities. The challenges facing the communities served by the Matfield Green Consortium include the usual rural woes: depletion of natural resources, loss of population and economic base and absentee land ownership.

“In most rural schools now kids usually learn that the important people and places are always somewhere else, off in the cities, far away,” Bev Worster, program director, told NCR. “Students learn that if they want to be somebody and accomplish things, they must go elsewhere. We try to reverse this by offering students a more ecological view of rural communities, both natural and human.”

The consortium programs are designed to strengthen the connections between local people. “At the Land Institute we believe healthy places mimic natural ecosystems, working together toward sustainability,” said Worster.

“Students learn the value of place and stewardship in a wide variety of ways,” she added. “Student learning is performance-based. Their work is published or gets an audience in the community. Student landscaping projects are done in public places. We get the students out in the Flint Hills, working to restore the native prairie.” Worster said that recently some students planned a park, built split-rail fences, put up butterfly feeders and then opened it to the public. Other students study local history, interview their grandmothers, or learn the old country art of quilting.

She said that some ask whether this approach promotes provincialism. Isn’t the goal of education to broaden horizons? Worster’s answer is that too often in rural America the children have lost touch with their location. “There’s even a kind of disdain for small towns and rural areas communicated in the media. We want them to learn that small towns and farms are good places to live, that people, community and land all have to prosper together. The local ecosystem includes the human, and if one element of this triangle suffers then they all do.”

Worster said she knows the program is working because a rancher told her that, thanks to his children’s education, he now thinks of his property as prairie rather than just grassy plots for feeding his stock. “For me,” said Worster, “that translates to real success.”

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002