Farming’s Future: Back to Year Zero?

April 2, 2010 | |

Wes Jackson and Kent Whealy, who speak in Traverse City later this week, are working for profound changes in modern agriculture by restoring ancient plant systems and seed stocks.

Wes Jackson says his lifelong research convinces him that modern agriculture must look far into the past if it is to have a sustainable future.

Dr. Jackson, director of The Land Institute, in Salinas, Kansas, will be at the State Theatre in Traverse City on April 8 at 6:30 p.m. to give a free talk called Nature, Climate Change, and the Problem of Agriculture. He will explain his views on harmonizing farming with nature.

Two days later, on April 10, Mr. Jackson makes a second appearance in Traverse City, joined by Kent Whealy, co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange.

Mr. Whealy’s non-profit, based in Decorah, Iowa, saves and shares more than 25,000 varieties of heirloom seeds with thousands of gardeners and farmers. Their goal is simple, but profound: Protect “original garden heritages” across generations. Saturday’s two-man show, called Coffee with Wes and Kent, takes place at Higher Grounds Coffee Roastery, at the Grand Traverse Commons, from 8 to 10 a.m. That event is free, as well.

“It’s an opportunity to get up close with two of the biggest innovators in sustainable agriculture,” said Jim Sluyter, a policy specialist with the Michigan Land Use Institute, which is sponsoring both events.

Dr. Jackson found The Land Institute in Kansas more than 30 years ago. The organization advocates for a concept it calls Natural Systems Agriculture-farming that “mimics nature.” The systems replicate perennial poly-cultures and crops that regrow naturally every year. That sharply cuts many of farmers’ biggest costs, including yearly plantings and the chemicals now so ubiquitous in most farming operations.

It also sharply reduces the soil erosion caused by plowing-one of agriculture’s biggest challenges.

His unusual approach makes Dr. Jackson one of the most respected experts on sustainable agriculture in the nation. In 2005, for example, Smithsonian Magazine named him one of 35 individuals who have made a lasting difference in the world.

“Our beginning point is to look at nature’s ecosystems and how they worked for millions of years,” he “Where they’re still in existence, natural ecosystems recycle soil nutrients and run on sunlight. They almost always feature perennial plants in mixtures: agriculture reversed that.”

In a New York Times op-ed piece that he wrote with Wendell Berry in 2009, Mr. Jackson said, “perennialization of the major grain crops, like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers, can be developed in the foreseeable future.”

“Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable,” Dr. Jackson wrote. “We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities.”

Mr. Whealy is also considered a pioneer in his field-protecting and disseminating seeds grown during earlier periods in human history. Just as Mr. Jackson is concerned about saving the world’s precious soil, Mr. Whealy is dedicated to preserving another truly priceless, eons-old heritage.

“The reason for alarm and concern about the loss of native strains is the irreplaceable nature of the genetic wealth,” Mr. Whealy wrote in one article published online at “The only place genes can be stored is in living systems-such as the live branches of apple trees or the living embryos of grain and vegetable seeds. The native varieties become extinct once they are dropped in favor of introduced seed.”

For more information on the upcoming events, please contact Mr. Sluyter at 231-941-6584 ext. 15 or via email at [email protected].

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at [email protected]


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