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Sustainable soils: Land Institute president speaks

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Powell – On Oct. 4, Wes Jackson, President of the Land Institute in Salina, Kans., spoke to a group of nearly 100 Northwest College (NWC) students, faculty and staff and Big Horn Basin producers and community members in an update on his work at the Land Institute.

Jackson was invited to speak as a featured author in the Northwest College Writes Series this year and was noted by the group as being “a leader in the international movement for sustainable agriculture.”

Jackson founded the Land Institute in 1976, saying that he wanted the chance to get students thinking and discussing the problems that were facing agriculture and the world.

“Originally we were devoted to a search for sustainable alternatives in agriculture and energy,” said Jackson. “We focus more on the agriculture part of it by now.”

The Land Institute focuses on improving food security by improving soil quality, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and moving away from chemical contamination of the land and water.

Jackson began the presentation by explaining that, because we are carbon-based creatures, humans constantly seek energy-rich carbon sources, which comes from four main pools, or sources.

“When we started in agriculture, humans used carbon at a rate faster than its natural renewal in the soil,” said Jackson. “With the opening of the North American continent, soils had about six percent carbon. Now they are about three percent, and it takes a long time to build back another one percent.”

Following soil use, humans began to harvest forests and grains, then natural gas, and finally other fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.

Jackson likens human population growth and the intense use of carbon sources to bacteria utilizing a sugar source on a petri dish.

“We developed an economic system for getting to the edge of the petri dish fast,” said Jackson. “It’s called the growth economy. We are collectively moving toward the edge of the petri dish to get at the energy rich carbon.”

Jackson emphasized that it is our lack of focus on maintaining soils that is a contributing factor in exhausting resources.

“Why do we not hear much about soil?” asked Jackson, pointing out that soil provides a major carbon reservoir. Additionally, Jackson provided the native grasslands and forests across the world as an example for what agriculture should attempt to mimic.

“Looking at the prairie, there is a system that runs on sunlight, no fossil fuels, no fertilizer and no pesticide inputs – that is a system supporting livestock and running on contemporary sunlight,” said Jackson. “Meanwhile, there is a wheat field, dependent on fossil fuels, with soil erosion and chemicals. We have a system that is degrading the ecological capitol of the soil.”

Because wheat and other annual crops and grains, such as soybeans, sunflowers, sorghum, rice and corn, make up the majority of our diet, the Land Institute is looking to breed perennial varieties of these plants.

By utilizing perennial plants, rather than annuals, Jackson suggests that soils and ecosystems would be able to maintain themselves more easily.

“The plant puts down a root, and that root is an investment for years to come,” explained Jackson. “It doesn’t have to rebuild the root each year.”

In photos presented, Jackson pointed out the longer, more complex root systems of the perennial hybrid plants the Land Institute has developed, and their ability to sustain ecological disasters, such as drought, ultimately providing for the sustainability of the industry.

In an additional attempt to achieve sustainability of agriculture, Jackson has also suggested a 50-year Farm Bill to help reach goals for soil sustainability and conservation, as well as nitrogen management and water use. Under his 50-year proposed plan, Jackson still advocates for five-year Farm Bills, but only to provide intermediate goals for the longer plan.

“Export policy, commodities, subsidies, some soil conservation measures and the food programs should be in the five-year Farm Bill,” said Jackson. “The 50-year Farm Bill protects soil from erosion, cuts wasteful use of water, cuts fossil fuel dependence, eliminates toxics, looks at careful nitrogen management, and reduces the dead zones to restore the agrarian way of life.”

Jackson’s plan specifically looks at doubling fruit and nut acreage as well as vegetable acreage over the next 50 years. Additionally, he wants to reduce the percentage of land consumed by annual grains from 80 percent to only 20 percent annual grains. The remaining acreage would consist of perennial grain and dual-purpose crops, as well as an increase in hay or forage acres.

“Currently, 80 percent of our land is devoted to annuals and only 20 percent to perennials,” explains Jackson. “We want to reverse that to only 20 percent devoted to annuals. Our perennials can be grazed and you still get grain.”

“When 80 percent of the cropland is protected by perennials, you would have a few annual grains, but there are lots of benefits,” said Jackson. “There is permanent vegetation in balanced, rural and community health and chemical health in the soils.”

Jackson continued, explaining that current agricultural systems are out of phase with nature and will remain out of phase as long as there is a focus on annual production and dependence of fossil fuels.

While hunter-gatherer societies and pre-industrial agriculture are most closely related to nature, Jackson says people will not willfully go back to either of those systems.

“We cannot get completely in phase with nature, but we can do better,” explains Jackson. “We are pretty close, with perennials on the horizon.”

Ultimately, the Land Institute is searching for a way to improve the health of the soils of the world to ensure the survival of the human species, and their research toward perennial grains is the avenue they believe will accomplish that goal.

“If we miss the opportunity to save our soils by embracing ecosystems as a conceptual tool, that going to be a very bad thing,” said Jackson. “And this is the time to do it.”

Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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