January 12, 2014
I could go on for quite a while about Wes Jackson. Wes runs The Land Institute in Salina, KS. He has fathered and promoted a number of ideas for improving food and farming over his career. Take the “sunshine farm” as a for-instance. The driving idea is that a farm gets an energy boost from the sun every year, and it puts out a burst of energy in the form of edible crops. Aside from the sunshine, every other source of energy—fuel for tractors, fertilizers and the energy embedded in the manufacture of everything from tractor tires to fertilizer bags—comes by taking it from someplace on the planet and bringing it to the farm (a process that involves energy itself, don’t you see). So Wes’s big idea was, if it’s really sustainable farming, sooner or later it has to work solely off that energy coming into the system in the form of sunshine. The Sunshine Farm was originally an accounting project: let’s just figure out where all this energy is coming from. Later it evolved into a study on indebtedness. Theoretically, if Wes flies to California to give a talk (something he does once in while), he has to “pay back” the energy debt with better, more sustainable farming at the Sunshine Farm.
Wes is probably best known for his project on perennial crops. These would be consumable grains that do not need to be replanted every year. This could serve the Sunshine Farm objective because not planting means not plowing, and that saves energy. Not plowing is also good for soil conservation and general eco-system health. Or that, at least, has been one of Wes’s big messages. Wes is also regarded as something of a hero for giving up his university job and making the Land Institute into an independent research and public action organization over the last 35 years. I’ve been there once, but not for the legendary parties.
Calling them parties may be misleading. A convocation or festival might convey the sense better. There’s music and dancing along with tours and demonstrations of the ongoing projects. There is also food. People come from all over the country—probably from all over the world, actually—for these events. Sounds like a party to me.
Wes also writes books. My personal favorite is still New Roots for Agriculture from 1980. He lays out trenchant criticisms of the ongoing research programs being undertaken by faculty at agricultural universities and begins to articulate a program for sustainable agriculture. Sometime around the same time Wes struck up a correspondence with Wendell Berry. His writing took a decided shift toward the conciseness and literary qualities. This resulted in books with wonderful titles drawn from the New England transcendentalists: Alters of Unhewn Stone; Becoming Native to this Place; Consulting the Genius of the Place. Great titles, but for my taste what the later writing gains in style and emotive effectiveness, it loses in clarity. Each to their own, I suppose.
After running into him almost once a year for a patch of ten years, it’s now been almost a decade since I’ve spent any time with Wes. He can be overbearing, and he’s so creative that there’s an almost equal chance that his next idea will be wacky as brilliant. But people who have come into the foodshed in the wake of work by our first class of food ethics icons—Michael Pollan, Temple Grandin or Vandana Shiva—are far less likely to know about Wes Jackson. And that’s just wrong.
Check out the website of The Land Institute, read one of Wes’s books or, for a real treat, read the chapter on him in William Least Heat Moon’s book Prairie Earth. You won’t regret it.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University