Perennial Crops in Ag3.0: Mimicking Nature’s Way

This is part of the text from Wes Jackson’s Commencement Address at the University of Kansas, May 19, 2013, excerpted from his post on May 31, 2013 at

The Serious Challenge of Our Time

A hundred and fifty years later (after the US Declaration of Independence) another high law of morality confronts us, a moral law not practiced because of all of us who exercise our legal authority. That high law of morality in our time calls on us to protect our planet’s ecosphere, that miraculous skin surrounding the earth within which we are embedded: our soils, our waters, our forests, our prairies, our oceans, our agricultural fields, and now our atmosphere. Yes, there are too many of us, but our consumption is rapacious. And so, the high calling to protect our ecosphere has little legal standing. It is legal to rip the tops off mountains, get the coal and burn it. It is legal to drill for oil and natural gas—from the Gulf to the Arctic—and burn it. It is legal to engage in fracking that threatens ground water to get natural gas and burn it. It is legal for all of us to purchase unnecessary products made with extracted materials and fossil energy. So, it is legal to bring on climate change, erratic weather and more. It is legal to be responsible for a loss of four-fifths as much sea ice as we had in 1980. It is legal to have our soils erode and toxic chemicals applied, legal to allow our rural communities to decline and watch so much of our cultural seed stock disappear.

We are now forced to address the legality of ecological exploitation if we are to achieve the high law of morality to protect our ecosphere. The greatest challenge of our time is to reduce consumption of fossil energy and materials and still meet the bonafide human needs. We have to develop a culture that provides rewarding, satisfying lives and free ourselves of the moral/legal inconsistency. The challenge is huge. Corporate leaders have a “fiduciary responsibility to stockholders.” Our retirement investments grow from the burning of fossil fuels. So, we are all in this together. This time, there is no North or South.

We need a course correction, knowing that profound change comes hard. It has always been so—from the time of the Declaration to the constitutional amendments ending slavery and racial discrimination. Now nature is being legally and increasingly enslaved, legally locked in an increasingly abusive and wasteful servitude.

Our individual efforts will also become more important. Here is an example from my own life:

Our nonprofit at Salina, The Land Institute, started in 1976. My family and I had returned home from California, and soon after there was a convergence of two ideas.

1) It appeared to me from a government study that soil—the stuff of which we are made—was eroding about as bad as when the Soil Conservation Service was formed in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, despite thousands of miles of terraces, grass waterways and millions of dollars invested. This was shocking.
2) About that time, I took students on a field trip to visit nature’s Konza Prairie near Manhattan. No soil erosion apparent, no applied fertilizer, no sprays, no fossil fuel. Elsewhere in our grain fields of wheat, corn, soybeans, sorghum, it was the opposite. Soil erosion was visible. Those fields were fossil fuel dependent for fertility, pest management and traction.

Small fields of grain and terraces in Malta
Small fields of grain and terraces in Malta

The contrast between nature’s way and agriculture was striking. Why? Our grain fields feature annuals – plants that must be replanted each year from seed on disturbed ground like wheat, corn, soybeans, sunflowers. The prairie like most other land ecosystems, features perennials – plant mixtures that keep coming up every year from deep roots that hold soil.

Clearly, agriculture had taken a far turn away from nature’s way. The grains responsible for some 70% of our calories are grown on around 70% of acreage worldwide. So, why no perennial corn or wheat? WHY NOT FARM LIKE A PRAIRIE? This sounded crazy then. But my former KU professors encouraged me.

So we set out to perennialize major crops and domesticate some promising wild species. We now see results from our geneticists at work on several perennial grains and our ecologist at work to integrate them.

This one example illustrates what a few individuals can start without permission. It does not require society at large.

What steps will you take to help protect the ecosphere?

Published by Kaytlyn Creutzberg, BSc, NSch, MA

#SayItLikeItIs and #ChoreographYourLifeYourWay: Kaytlyn writes not only about applying a spiritual care therapeutic model to farming, but also how collective cultural narratives impact the choices we make that result in a pervasive "don't care" attitudinal construct towards Earth and Her landscapes. (formerly Gayl)

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