When Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann get together, conversation, laughter and ideas flow. Other than a closeness in age, the three appear to have little in common.
Jackson is a Ph.D. plant breeder and founder, in 1976, of The Land Institute, a Salina, Kan., nonprofit dedicated to finding sustainable solutions to food’s uncertain future. Berry is, of course, a giant of American letters, a poet, essayist, novelist, non-fiction writer and, as he unfailingly notes, a farmer.
“I am of the party of the land and the people,” Berry told the Community Farm Alliance in his native Kentucky Dec. 4.
Kirschenmann practices what he preaches: He is both a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the manager of his family’s 3,500-acre certified organic farm in south central North Dakota.
For two years, this trinity of farm and food eloquence and evangelism has been writing and lecturing on the need for a long-term, sustainable ag policy where, as Jackson explains, “today’s awful dualism that pits production against conservation” is replaced with “more natural ecosystems where conservation is a consequence of production.”
That shift in practice will require a shift in policy — a dramatic shift — centered on soil and water, not fructose, feed or even food.
“People are more worried about food than they are about soil and water,” says Jackson in a telephone interview Jan. 4. “The fact is soil is as much a nonrenewable resource as oil and, really, it’s more important because without it you have no food whether you have oil or not.”
Another hole in our short-term ag policy approach, wrote Berry and Jackson in Jan. 5, 2009, New York Times Op-Ed piece is that “For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food.”
Not true, because “If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline … (and) the government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billions of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.”
What’s needed is a broader approach that relies more on long-term nature than short-term politics. Jackson, Berry and Kirschenmann explain this idea as “a national agriculture policy that is based upon ecological principles … a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”
The three friends carried that vision to Washington, D.C. in mid-2009. Their message, explains Jackson, was centered on perennial grains. (Read more on their proposal at http:// www.landinstitute.org/pages/FB%20edited%207-6-10.pdf.)
“We must acknowledge that nature covers much of the land with perennials,” he notes.
They are efficient users of sun, water and nutrients; provide cover against soil erosion and, he adds, efficiently sequester carbon.
“This is not a political statement,” says Jackson; “This is science.”
Monoculture annuals, like corn, rice, wheat and soy — “dependent on carbon-based energy and fertilizer” — will not be able to deliver the needed food without further eroding key elements of their production, soil and water.
“As such, we are engaged in a policy that we all know is doomed to fail,” Jackson told the Kentucky audience Berry later addressed in December — just, as he also acknowledged, was trio’s 50-year Farm Bill trip to Washington.
“Wendell, Fred and I” — three 70-somethings with “absolutely nothing” to gain — “went because it was necessary. This discussion, now, is absolutely necessary.”
Necessary, too, is more science. Jackson estimates that if $50 million of farm program money per year was redirected at perennial grain production research for 50 years the food needs of the world could be met through “whenever.”
That will be chickenfeed to our grandchildren.