Mainstreaming Sustainable Agriculture

Strategies for putting our biological knowledge to work

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 33
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Wes Jackson is the co-founder, with his wife Dana, of the Land Institute (2440 Waterwell Road, Salina, KS 67401) and one of the pioneers in sustainable agriculture. His book, New Roots For Agriculture, describes the need for shifting from monoculture annual grains (like wheat) to intermixed (polyculture) perennial grains. The Land Institute is a research and demonstration center for how this can be done. I spoke with Wes while we were at the 2nd International Permaculture Conference held in early August of this year.

I’m interested in how far along you feel the knowledge base for doing sustainable agriculture is. And I’d like to get some of your sense of what you see are the obstacles for moving towards sustainable agriculture, and then what people, right now, can do?

Wes: Where are we, what are the obstacles, and what can we do?

I don’t know if I can say where we are except that there seems to be a growing interest and awareness of this type of stuff, and clearly the industrial paradigm for agriculture is coming under very high surveillance by a lot of alternative type folk, and it comes just at a time when farmers are in deep trouble. So the good thing about that is that a lot of people that have given farmers this industrialized agriculture have been softened by the economic plight and are a little more willing to listen. It’s a kind of reluctant listening, but there are people that are willing to listen.

One of the problems, though, is that the biotechnology people presume that they are going to be able to bail us out just in time. What we have now is not only a fossil fuel intensive agriculture, it’s an agriculture that’s dependent upon chemicals, and we’re narrowing the genetic base. Monsanto is now splicing genes into soybeans for herbicide resistance and they are selling us the herbicide. They’ve got two things going. Well, everybody is sort of thinking, whew, the gene splicers have arrived just in time, and haven’t people always been able to pull through by the skin of their teeth, and now we have this high technology that’s going to get us through.

Well, there is another group of people with a different approach. One approach has a large amount of nature’s wisdom and a little bit of human cleverness, while the other has those proportions reversed; they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. One involves ecology, ecosystemology, and the other biotech, gene splicing. The first rewards farmers, while the other rewards corporations and industry. The first is much more biological, while the other is much more in the industrial paradigm. Where we are now, I think, is that there are an awful lot of people who have an intuition that nature’s wisdom is critically important. This isn’t to say that there’s no place for human cleverness, but it is to say where our emphasis is. To say that human cleverness is the greatest, that’s hubris.

Robert: If we were to have the farmers who have been using the industrial approach to start deserting that approach in droves, is there enough practical knowledge in the more biological approach to greet them effectively?

Wes: That’s an important question, and that’s really what our work is about. There’s been a lot of research of the "pristine knowledge" variety done and then put on the shelf in the last 30 years by people working in the fields of population genetics, evolutionary biology, plant population biology, and ecology; you can name several fields. Even the people who have put it there are not aware of to what extent it contributes to preventing soil loss, to reducing the chemical inputs, to reversing the genetic narrowing process of the major crops. So the consequence is that the people who really have the knowledge to help this point of view are not organized in the way that the people in the industrial approach are. Monsanto is not going to get behind these people. DeKalb and Ciba-Geigy and Shell Oil are not going to get behind these people. And to a certain extent, even the university people are not going to get behind them.

Robert: Not to bring it into practical fruition, they aren’t.

Wes: Right. So, what we want to do at the Land Institute is to get three to five postdocs, people who have already finished the Ph.D. in some of these areas, to come to us for a year and then go out and start a teaching and research program in the area of sustainable agriculture within the universities. But I think there needs to be a tremendous amount of organizing of these folks. This will have to be public money, because the big corporations aren’t interested.

This is an area where people who are interested in things like permaculture have to be watch dogs, watching watch dogs, riding herd over this kind of research. My profound fear is that there will be a hue and cry to start doing research in sustainable agriculture. Money will come in to existing organizations, like the universities, to do it. So the Dean of the College of Agriculture says, "Oh yes, we’ll be happy to receive this money." He will have a little pool there, and then he will shop around to see what faculty members happen to be in need of some funds, and the faculty member is not going to want to change his bibliography, because his bibliography is so narrow and deep now that he can’t crawl out of it. He is not going to want to change it because to bring himself up to speed is just going to take too long, so he’ll change the opening paragraph and the closing paragraph of his papers, and all the contents in the middle will be the same. It will be hard as the dickens to really bear down and make it clear that this work, the work he is doing, is not the most effective kind of work we could be doing in order to get a sustainable agriculture under way. They will always be able to justify the importance of doing some of this work, because it is necessary background for other work that will need to be done. And that’s one reason that there’s got to be a lot of citizen involvement.

Robert: The work that Bill Mollison, Masanobu Fukuoka, and others have done – very fruitful grassroots research – has all been outside of the academic structures. How do you see that?

Wes: Well, I think it’s important in helping to raise our consciousness. I think it represents the kind of radical fringe that is the important brew, but in the face of power, it’s not going to slow down the four-wheel-drive John Deere 200 horsepower tractor in the Kansas wheat fields, it’s not going to slow down the 18 tons per year per acre soil loss in western Iowa. We’re talking about a million square miles, and this is small potatoes stuff. I think the value of that brew is that it begins to change the consciousness. Otherwise it’s just going to remain a marginal isolate in the society for the few that want to do these nice little things, but it won’t really bring about a fundamental change over that million square miles.

Robert: So how do we bring about that change?

Wes: My feeling is that, here are these land grant institutions, major universities, billions of dollars of assets, that we need to start leveraging. I mean, they are institutions, and in a way, they are as destructive as the military, when one considers the landscape, the food base for the country, the pollution of the ground water from ag-chemicals, and on and on. To simply decide we are going to do our own thing, rather than getting control of those tremendous assets, is a kind of reneging on the responsibilities of citizenship. So what I’m hoping we can do is to begin to clamor for some legislation that starts reallocating the money within those institutions, to find the young and the idealistic. What I would like to see is an institute for sustainable agriculture set up in every single land grant institution, independent of the college of agriculture, so that you don’t answer to the same dean, but that you answer, say, to a vice- president for academic affairs. The point is that we need to give this the kind of boost that NASA got. You remember that when NASA first got started, there was a quarrel. Is the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or whoever going to be in charge? They finally just set up NASA independent of those organizations. One of the problems though, in setting up an institute for sustainable agriculture, is that it is like the Environmental Protection Agency in the early stages: they are the agency that gets all the dead wood from the other agencies, and it takes a while before they can begin to hit their stride.

Robert: You have by now had a number of interns and others who have come through the Land Institute. From that and other sources, what do you guess is the current population of people who have the background to be able to staff that kind of work usefully?

Wes: That’s one of the reasons we’ve just started in this year with the post-doc program. See, before when we’ve taken people, some of them have not even had their Bachelor’s degree and others have taken the Bachelor’s degree, come with us, spent 43 weeks, but then maybe they were off to the Peace Corps for three years, maybe they were somewhere else for a while, and eventually they’d get back in and perhaps take the degree and get into such positions. There aren’t all that many. In fact, I don’t think we have a single person that has yet finished the Ph.D. that has been with us, and we’ve been doing this for 10 years. We’ve had to get our feet under us, too. So that’s one of the reasons I’m getting a little impatient and would like to see us get the three to five post-does coming through every year. Let’s say it’s five; in five years that’s 25 people, and that can make a big difference because they, too, will have been turning out some students then.

You have to have them for that length of time in order to talk about the social, the political, the economic, and the religious implications of trying to run agriculture on sunlight, so that you are not just one of those technological fix-it type places. I’m afraid that’s where a lot of people are going to be willing to stop. We have to call attention to how food production is a political act. That’s why the need for an indoctrination in the new paradigm.

Does that answer the three questions?

Robert: I’d like to throw it back at you in another way and say, when do you think you would be ready to be Secretary of Agriculture, or to take you off the hook a little bit, someone who has come through the Land Institute?

Wes: Marty Strange was asked that question once, and he said the first thing he would do is fire everybody in the Department of Agriculture and then resign, because that’s not where the decisions are made. I don’t know whether he believes that or whether he was just being funny, but the fact of the matter is that now, it is not where most of the decisions are made. It’s in our export policy; it’s in the whole system. It doesn’t make sense to talk about changing agriculture or changing farming unless we’re willing to talk about changing the society at large. What’s happening to the farmer and the farm is simply a faint foreshadow of what’s to come for the culture at large. The point is that I wouldn’t be willing to even think about being a Secretary of Agriculture in the context of the present situation, because that isn’t where the action is. I think there are any number of people that are effectively bringing about the necessary changes in agriculture, and not a single one of them is on a federal payroll. There are no federal people at this permaculture conference, for gosh sakes. Why shouldn’t the USDA have representatives at the permaculture conference if they’re really serious? They’re not. I’ll bet you that the State of Washington doesn’t have any State Agriculture people here. There many be a person or two from Pullman, but I’ll bet they’re here for other reasons.

Robert: You were saying that there are people out there who are making effective change. How are they doing that?

Wes: Well, I think that Steve Gleasman down at Santa Cruz is calling attention to some possibilities. Miguel Altiari at Berkeley is calling attention to some possibilities. John Quinney and the New Alchemists are calling attention to some possibilities. The Mollison people are calling attention to some possibilities. In the realm of a more conventional till agriculture, Dick and Sharon Thompson in Boone, Iowa are showing some possibilities with their ridge planting methods, and so on. There are some organic farmers that I know. One is John Vogelsberg in Kansas. The 680-acre farm he lives on has never been farmed any way but organically, and John is financially solvent. There are the Amish that are able to make it. You know, gradually I think we will get it worked into the mind of this culture that to farm like John Vogelsberg does, or like the Amish do, is not going back; they are modern people, too. The Amish are ancient people, and they are modern people; for instance, some of their buggies have digital clocks in them. They use gasoline engines to run the threshing component, and so on. It’s just that they have assessed the technology against a standard that is not that of the conventional American society. So gradually people need to get used to the idea that something like digital clocks in buggies and horses in the fields go together, and not to be so uptight and nervous about the fact that "horses are primitive," or get used to the idea of a sufficiency of labor. A sufficiency of people is the way you have resilience; then the changes will come.

All I want to say is that I would like to see the institutions and the people who have put this knowledge on the shelf begin to apply that knowledge in such a manner that it would be helpful to the Amish farmer, helpful to the John Vogelsbergs, helpful to the Dick and Sharon Thompsons, and it just simply means that an awful lot of people that are currently working for the chemical companies are going to have to find some legitimate work. Right now as it stands, Ag Extension Agents are nothing more than traveling salesmen for the chemical companies, and we’ve just got to find other work for those people.

Robert: How about people who are not primarily involved in agriculture but are concerned about the health of the planet? What can they do, in an urban situation or whatever, to help the movement towards a more sustainable agriculture?

Wes: Of course, it’s important. People’s consumption patterns have to be looked at, that’s one thing. Start getting your own body and mind ready for less waste of resources. I mean all materials, not just food. When you look at the land surface of the planet, consumerism is in competition with food. So we ought to start figuring out a way to keep improving the efficiency of our lifestyles.

The second thing is that citizen activism is important, and often more effective than we think. Remember when nuclear power plants were being built, and some citizens opposed them? It seemed like it was an unreachable goal, that we couldn’t do anything about stopping those nuke plants, but I somehow think we have had an effect in stopping them, and I think that the same kind of citizen activism that was necessary in bringing the Vietnam war to a halt and slowing nuclear power is also the same kind of thing that’s necessary to get a hold of this industrialized agriculture and turn it around.

A lot of people could grow their own food in their own yards. There is no reason we have to have a lawn. England is the only country in Europe that has lawns, and that’s because of a history with sheep. People can start working in little ways. And I think that political activism in necessary.

Robert: I want to take one more try on the Secretary of Agriculture. Suppose there were a different context in which you had, oh, people like Amory Lovins as Secretary of Energy. If you were in that kind of context, then what might you do as Secretary of Agriculture?

Wes: The first thing I would do is acknowledge that, in terms of public policy, giving money to support the family farm is a bad idea. That money probably ought to be allocated to restoring rural community, and the family farm is then a derivative of the rural community. If you have just the family farm, and your community is gone, then money comes through the hands of the farmer and goes to the suppliers of inputs, the people who supply the pesticides, the fertilizers, the farm machinery and so on – effectively the bankers of the farmer – and then it gets bounced electronically around the world, wherever the interest rate happens to be high. On the other hand, if it came through the farmer and there was a minimum of these inputs, in other words more of that which comes from nature rather than that which is provided by industry, then the money goes through the hands of the farmer into the local community, the small town or whatever. Then you can sponsor the rural churches, schools, baseball, all of the stuff that goes to make up rural culture.

Then, every time I was invited to give an address as Secretary of Agriculture at a major academic institution, I would ask the faculty and the administration how many of them there were prepared, or knew how to design a curriculum that would teach people to go home, to become "homecomers." In other words, what kind of an education do we need if we are homecomers?

What I would hope to challenge them on is that what’s needed is a lot of the traditional subject matter in the humanities and social sciences, as well as in the sciences. To live and work in a community, it will have been useful to have had some time in a university where you studied, say, some of Shakespeare or Dante, and to gain some insights into the nature of the human. Or you study the Odyssey and you realize that there is a rich thing here for agriculture, Odysseus returning from the cave of Calypso to his wife Penelope to grow old and farm and die. When they then go back into those communities, they are carrying those images in their heads and can see that yes, here is a Lady Macbeth situation. To think about the Odyssey and what it means to be a farmer has as much importance as a course in soil science. I think that what we are talking about is using education for nothing less than the making of humanity, and there is no reason why humanity shouldn’t be spread out on this landscape where we can have people operating more as naturalists than the modern day dirt farmer, where we can have people looking at that landscape and thinking about what its needs are and then trying to meet its expectations.

That would be a real culture, but that may be the 1000 year journey that Gary Snyder is talking about. I think a Secretary of Agriculture that’s worth his or her salt would be tuned into that.

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