The Genius of Place

The Land Institute founder on tapping the genius of the prairie
in the design of agriculture

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 40
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Known for his pioneering efforts in the sustainable agriculture movement, Wes Jackson co-founded the Land Institute, a research and demonstration center focusing on how we can shift from using monoculture annual grains (like wheat) to inter-mixed (polyculture) perennial grains. Jackson and his staff seek to farm in nature’s image, with a research agenda based on a marriage of agriculture and ecology, drawing knowledge from the way the world has worked for millions of years.

Kathryn: One of the chief constraints to agribusiness is that in many parts of the world it is depleting fresh watch supplies more rapidly than they’re being replenished. How would a sustainable agriculture system use watch resources differently?

Wes: Well, what comes to mind is a study by a graduate student named William Noll at the University of Nebraska. In the 1930s he did a master’s thesis that compared a never-plowed native prairie with an adjacent wheat field on common soil. He looked at several things, but the water part of it was particularly interesting.

The native prairie allocated the rain water over the course of the year – what turned out to be the driest year on record. Even though there were plants that died, essentially all the perennial species survived. In contrast, the adjacent wheat field completely died. The prairie is a "system" that has evolved to receive and allocate water over the course of a year – it uses a natural water conservation program.

Now, if you go to the tropical rain forest, another spot in the ecological mosaic of this planet – an area with 300 inches of rainfall per year – water is the nemesis of fertility because it will carry the nutrients downward and out of reach of the roots. Here you have a "system" designed to pump huge quantities of energy – of water – back into the atmosphere. This is a system designed to do the opposite of the one up in the prairie.

Now what "Homo the Homogenizer" does, with an abundance of fossil fuel, is homogenize all these diverse environments to meet our expectations, rather than trying to meet the expectations of the landscape.

What comes to mind are the words of Alexander Pope, the great poet, who said, "Consult the genius of the place in all things." So if you think of these two extremes across the ecological mosaic and all the other realities in between, it seems worthwhile to consider designing agricultural systems that – as John Todd once called, "the elegant solution predicated on the uniqueness of place."

Kathryn: Can you expand on the concept of the resources of an ecological mosaic?

Wes: Well, if you’re a Papago Indian in Arizona and you’re living on what can be provided immediately, you’re probably growing corn, but in little hills and rather widely spaced. You’ve probably got a system designed to hold water and then to divert it. All right now, if you’re up in, let’s say on a farm west of Boston, water’s not your problem – maybe you’re getting too much of it. So the resources of an ecological mosaic have to do with what you might call the ecological limits as well as possibilities across that mosaic. Once a person is aware of what the ecological limits of a place might be, then they’re far less likely to overrun the carrying capacity of a place.

Kathryn: Can you expand on how the prairie’s water conservation system works?

Wes: On the prairie the rain is absorbed by a grassy mat and transferred downward into the roots that are nosing their way in an intricate web below the surface. The sponge-like characteristic of the mat holds the water long enough to percolate downward for storage for the roots’ growth.

Kathryn: And how does that compare to the wheat field?

Wes: Well first of all, in our part of the country, the ground the wheat grows on will be mostly bare without any living thing on it from around the first of July to around the first of September. So, if you’ve got wind or rain, you have no protection. Second, because wheat is a cool season grass, once it starts growing it really gets humming. It will absorb a lot of water but will lose a lot of water when it’s hot and windy.

Kathryn: The Ogallala Aquifer is being used at a such a rapid rate that it cannot replenish itself How do you think farming in the Great Plains could be converted to a system that is sustainable within the existing water and soil resources that are there?

Wes: Remember these are grasslands and the human is primarily a grass seed eater. So we start by asking what vegetative structure was there. Then we ask, "What will nature require of us here?" Finally, we ask, "What will nature help us to do here?" Those three questions can inform a research agenda that is not simply modifying the landscape to meet short-term human demands.

On our native prairie there are warm season grasses, cool season grasses, legumes, and members of the sunflower family. In our experimental plot, we have the analog, or representative, of the warm season grass that will stand for warm season grasses, the cool season for the cool season grasses, the legume for the legume family, sunflower for the sunflower family, etc. We put these together in an ensemble that is a rough mimic of the vegetative structure of native prairie.

We look at native prairie that’s never been plowed, or prairie that’s been plowed where there’s been revegitation. The prairie features perennials, whereas the wheat field features annuals. The prairie features a polyculture, or a mixture, and the wheat field features an annual monoculture. Because of species diversity on the prairie you also have chemical diversity.

In this situation, it would take a tremendous enzyme system on the part of an insect or a pathogen to reach an epidemic. You have the prairie sponsoring its own nitrogen. Whereas with the wheat field, in almost all cases, the nitrogen comes out of a tank or out of a bag. And natural gas is the feed stock for nitrogen fertilizer. So since the prairie pays its bills with regularity, it’s time to start thinking about how that system operates and see if we can put together an agriculture that is like it.

In our research, we have asked four basic questions: Do perennials and high seed yield go together? Can a polyculture out-yield a monoculture? Can the system adequately manage insects, pathogens, and weeds? And, can the system sponsor enough of its own nitrogen? We have answered the first three of the four questions affirmatively. We don’t know yet know about the fourth question. I think it’s primarily a question of breeding, but we don’t know that yet.

Now – if the US Department of Agriculture would really get to cracking – the timeframe on making a transition to this type of a more sustainable system would be about 15 to 25 years. We’re not talking about anything that’s going to provide instant gratification. What we’re promoting is an agriculture that is as different from what we have now as the airplane is from the train.

We’re where the Wright Brothers were at Kittyhawk in 1903. We’ve had our 59-second flight. Just as the Wright Brothers could not have foreseen the coming of the 747 or the SST, neither can we see where this is going. But we do know that the sort of agriculture we’re talking about pioneering would run on sunlight and would be based on consulting the genius of the place.

For more information, contact the Land Institute, 2440 E. Water Well Rd., Salina, KS 67401; tel. 913/823-5376; fax: 913/823-8728.