Prairie Pioneer Seeks To Reinvent The Way We Farm A man from the Plains is on a mission to change the way we farm. For the past 33 years, this farmer has devoted his life to creating new strains of crops that will thrive year-round without depleting the soil.

Prairie Pioneer Seeks To Reinvent The Way We Farm

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

And finally this hour, we're going to meet a man who has spent his long career trying to solve the ultimate agricultural conundrum.

We sometimes think of the earth as providing us with an endless bounty of food, but the usual farming practices can't work forever. Soil is constantly washing away. What's left is losing the nutrients it needs to sustain crops.

NPR's Richard Harris has this profile from a farm in Salina, Kansas.

RICHARD HARRIS: When you first meet Wes Jackson, you're likely to assume he's just another good-ol'-boy farmer from the Plains. His hands are broad and strong, a plaid shirt covers his beefy belly and he sounds every bit like the native son of Kansas that he is.

(Soundbite of festival)

HARRIS: So, good morning.

Mr. WES JACKSON (Founder Land Institute, Prairie Festival): Good morning, Harris.

HARRIS: How are you?

Mr. JACKSON: Richard Harris. How art thou?

HARRIS: I'm well.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

HARRIS: On this autumn day, the 73-year-old Wes Jackson is surrounded by several hundred neighbors, students and fellow travelers all here for his annual Prairie Festival. Some came from thousands of miles to gather in his barn to hear talks and think big thoughts about the future of the planet in general and agriculture in particular.

Mr. JACKSON: And we have music, the barn dance. And it's sort of an intellectual hootenanny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Jackson is part scientist, part philosopher, part farmer. More than 30 years ago, he gave up his brief career as a professor to set up this 600-acre farm on the gently rolling uplands of Kansas. He calls it the Land Institute. And it includes not only the barn and other out-buildings, but an office in a suburban-style ranch house, a lab building made partly of old telephone poles, and a comfortable, rustic home.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, we started here in '76. And we had as our purpose, we said, devoted to a search for sustainable alternatives in agriculture, energy, shelter, waste management.

HARRIS: No surprise that turned out to be a bit too much to bite off all at once. So he quickly tore down his bulky windmills and the old solar panels and focused on the topic closest to his heart.

Mr. JACKSON: Trying to solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture. That's the modest effort. We can go this way.

HARRIS: As Jackson leads me across the dirt road in front of his farm, he explains that the 10,000-year-old problem is that agriculture in most places is based on practices that use up limited resources. Jackson is worried because vast quantities of soil are washed out of the fields and down the rivers, and the soil that's left is gradually losing its nutrients.

Jackson pondered what he could to do to solve this problem. He decided the answer was right in front of him. It was the patch of native prairie on his own farm, full of grasses from ankle to shoulder height, peppered with white and purple flowers and surrounded by shrubs and cottonwood trees.

Mr. JACKSON: Here is a steep, sloping bank with a lot of species diversity, featuring perennials. This is what I call nature's wisdom.

HARRIS: Perennials are plants that put down strong roots 10 feet or more into the ground and hold the soil in place. Perennials live year-round, unlike annual crops that get planted every year. Here, perennials survive the harsh Kansas winter and the blazing hot Kansas summer.

And in contrast to fields that get plowed every year, native prairie vegetation actually improves the soil year after year. The amazing variety of plant life in this prairie also makes it resilient against disease.

Mr. JACKSON: So I thought, you know, why can't we solve this 10,000-year-old problem? The solution is to build an agriculture based on the way nature's ecosystems work.

HARRIS: This turned out to be both a major plant breeding challenge and a social one. It's not easy to get farmers and the public at large to rethink what farms ideally should be, not just areas sacrificed to food production, but actually part of nature.

Mr. JACKSON: All reports from the sheriff's department…

HARRIS: Jackson's been spreading this word through his annual Prairie Festival for the past 31 years.

Mr. JACKSON: You have come to us today from 23 states and one Canadian province, and we're very pleased to have you here.

HARRIS: To make progress on the biological problem, Jackson recruited a handful of young and ambitious PhDs - plant breeders. Their mission: nothing less than to reinvent the world's most important crops.

The major grains like wheat and corn are planted afresh every year, but the fields lose soil when they're plowed, and the soil that remains loses nitrogen and carbon. So Jackson decided, let's figure out a way to breed grain crops so they can be planted once and will just stay in the ground just like prairie grasses and actually replenish the soil. They can be harvested year after year.

One of the scientists he brought to the Land Institute to do this is a Minnesota farm boy turned plant breeder, Lee DeHaan.

Mr. LEE DEHAAN (Scientist, Land Institute): The time when I started here, they said, well, let's put the youngest guy on wheat, because maybe he can see it through. So we're not expecting that it's going to be something that's going to be real easy to do or that we'll see the results of really soon.

HARRIS: DeHaan joined the institute in 2001. He leads a group of visitors on this festival weekend down to a greenhouse so they can see his perennial wheat project.

(Soundbite of greenhouse)

HARRIS: DeHaan's job is to crossbreed regular old wheat with other grasses that survive year-round. Eventually some of the regular wheat should pick up traits that will turn it into a perennial grass, like the native prairie grasses.

Mr. DEHAAN: We decided to really go at this aggressively and make a huge population of plants that are very diverse. So that first year we made about 1,500 new plants.

HARRIS: It's taken him years and years. But as we look around the greenhouse today, we see the result of his work: hundreds of plants sitting on waist-high benches that are a cross between wheat and grasses that grow year-round.

He will soon plant them in the fields. He hopes that maybe - just maybe - up will sprout a wheat plant that produces a lot of grain that actually tastes something like wheat and that has the hardiness of a native prairie grass.

Mr. DEHAAN: It's like scratching off lottery tickets, you know? Maybe there's something amazing in there. We'll see. But that's why we love these plant breeders, right? Because every year, it's like heading out there and who knows what you find. Maybe this is the year when you make the big breakthrough. So that's kind of the fun of it.

HARRIS: DeHaan does have something to show for his work. He's had some success taking a native wheat relative that's already a perennial and hybridizing it to produce grains that are more like the wheat we actually grind into flour. They call this new kind of wheat Kernza.

Other scientists at the Land Institute are working on perennial sunflowers and perennial sorghum, which in the U.S. at least, is a grain that's mostly fed to cattle. It all takes lots of time, but no matter.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: Jackson has been hosting this barn dance for more than 30 years, but he realizes his mission to save the world's soil is just getting started.

Mr. JACKSON: We don't feel so bad about talking about 50 years anymore because we're not going to solve the climate problem in 50 years. We're not going to solve the problem of too many people in 50 years.

HARRIS: And those problems are all tied together, he says. They all point to a world that's living beyond its means. Jackson's goal is to create a whole new system that will let us live sustainably on the Earth.

Mr. JACKSON: You start, from our point of view, with a resilient food system, and we don't have one.

HARRIS: Maybe someday we will. As the silver-haired Kansan is fond of saying: If you're working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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