A Countercultural Agriculture

Research plots at The Land Institute
Research plots at The Land Institute

Last weekend, along the high banks of the Smoky Hill River a few miles south of Salina, Kansas, more than a thousand revolutionaries from all over the country gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Land Institute.

Armed with strong coffee and cans of kombucha, they pledged their allegiance to the institute’s audacious, counter-agricultural goal of developing “an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops.”

Wes Jackson, co-founder of The Land Institute, explains in his book Nature as Measure that although humans are clever, nature has been at it for a very long time. We humans have used ever more sophisticated technology to pick the winners and losers, but nature has been making choices for eons, with a climate-specific, land-specific, acre-specific alacrity and sophistication that makes Monsanto and the rest of Big Ag look like Homer Simpson running a nuclear power plant.

Our current habit of planting annual monocultures is distinctly unnatural in a world inhabited almost exclusively by perennial polycultures. Annual plants start each spring from scratch; perennials start where they left off in the previous growing season, courtesy of deep root structures that allow them to better access water and to recapture deep nutrients that would otherwise leach away. These root structures are the scaffolding for an incredibly complex community of bacteria and fungi that we have yet to fully understand, let alone replicate. Monocultures are vulnerable to predation (we replaced all of our diseased elms with ash trees—will we ever learn?) and are inherently risky, like building a stock portfolio out of a single stock.

For various reasons, we’ve chosen an unnatural form of agriculture that plants the equivalent of infants, and as any parent knows, infants are very labor intensive. We’ve paid for all the diapers and day care with eye-popping soil loss, a bevy of agro-chemicals, high energy inputs, depleted or contaminated aquifers, and the marginalization of the family farm. For many, that seems too high a price to pay, when a better way exists.

When grains are grown in mixtures without annual disturbance, countless natural efficiencies inherent in nature’s ecosystems can return to the land. We can now realistically imagine farming like the prairie. The benefits we can expect include soil erosion approaching zero, the eventual end of fossil fuel dependency, the near elimination of toxic chemicals being applied to our food and, as an added plus, sequestering of carbon and a reduction of greenhouse gases. -- Wes Jackson

Although the weekend included panels of experts speaking about sustainable agriculture, there was a palpable sense that The Problem is bigger than that. Our Ponzi-schemed unsustainable agriculture is just a part of our unsustainable culture, a pedal-to-the-metal extractive society that finds it hard to live with nature, or even ourselves. The ancient communal bonds of place, family, and community have been replaced by a mythical upward mobility that leaves us fiercely “independent” and deeply depressed. GPS can only tell us where we are located. It cannot tell us where we are, or where we belong.

Enter the weekend’s keynote speaker, Wendell Berry: the farmer-poet-writer from Kentucky, winner of the 2012 Jefferson Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and my nominee for Wisest Person in the World. Throw together Wallace Stegner, Mark Twain, Aldo Leopold, and Yoda and you’re halfway there. In a patient and gentle Kentucky drawl he explained,

The pipe dream of limitlessness may be the only unifying theme of our age. We have the apparent endlessness of facile talk about limitless economic growth. We have the so-far limitlessness of space exploration, particle physics, and other public charities for the intellectually overfed. A market limitlessly usable by sellers, and limitlessly exploitable by buyers is merely normal in such a time. And limitlessness is the common denominator of both of the dominant political sides, both of which tend to refer to limitlessness as freedom. We have the liberal freedom of unrestricted personal behavior. And the conservative freedom of unrestrained economic behavior. These two freedoms are more alike, more allied, and more collaborative than either side will acknowledge.

Berry’s lecture was far-ranging, but included the paradoxical notion that the Earth might provide for human beings endlessly—a kind of limitlessness I suppose—if we care for it in a detailed, place-specific manner that recognizes its limits.

Discussing Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, Berry noted, “He knew that land destruction is easy: it requires only ignorance and violence. But to restore the land, and to conserve it, requires humanity in its highest completed sense.”

Sing it, Wendell.

Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry
Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry
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