By Woody Woodruff
Every year The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas hosts a Prairie Festival to showcase their accomplishments for the year and celebrate the sustainable agriculture movement with nearly one thousand like-minded individuals. This year the stars aligned and three prairie men from Illinois set off on a journey to the 40th anniversary celebration of the Land Institute. Steve John from the Agricultural Watershed Institute, Jack Erismen from Goldmine Farms and I, Woody Woodruff made up the Illinois delegation.
This 2016 Prairie Festival was the last for The Land Institute founder and president, Wes Jackson. Wes Jackson’s Book “New Roots for Agriculture” was a required read for my studies in Agro-Ecology. Over the course of his years as president of the Land Institute, he has been working to develop new perennial grains and seed crops and researching ecologically intensified polycultures that mimic natural systems. With the help of lead Land Institute researcher Lee DeHaan, they developed Kernza. This new perennial wheat crop was created through cross-breeding between the annual wheat used to make breads and an ancient form of intermediate wheatgrass, a perennial that is actually a distant relative of wheat. What this work has produced is revolutionary. Kernza has an eight foot root mass that functions as a soil builder, a great climate change carbon sinker, and has a harvestable wheat seed head that is currently being used to make Kernza bread and a beer called Long Root produced in California by Patagonia. As a perennial, Kernza will over winter and start growing again, meaning farmers disturb the soil less. The need to disturb the soil each year in our current annual grain production system is a major contributor in releasing greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. The Land Institute is also developing perennial sorghum and legumes, further working towards the goal of creating agricultural lands that mimic a natural system like a prairie system. Kernza is in its early trial stages and to date there are 4 farmers in Illinois who are growing plots of Kernza, including myself, Jack Erisman, and Bernie Hand, who was also in attendance at the Prairie Festival. Bringing the Kernza farmers together only served to drum up more excitement between us about the results of next year’s harvest.
The Prairie Festival was also the introduction of the new president Fred Iutzi, a native Illinoisan. Several of us at Illinois Stewardship Alliance have worked with Fred as he managed agriculture, energy, and cooperative development programs for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. Fred gave a speech at the end of the Prairie Festival signifying a changing of the guard, so-to-speak. Fred alluded to the fact that he was a fourth, and his son a fifth, generation farm family member from Hancock County. He eloquently reflected back to a well-documented visit from the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural Delegation that visited his family’s farm in the 1920s. This was an era of little external inputs and almost completely non-industrial type farming. The first of the iron horse tractors showed up in Hancock a few years later starting the beginning of the Agricultural Industrial Revolution and the dependence on external inputs, like the tractor. Farmers could grow fewer thing because they no longer needed to raise hay to feed horses. This description from the U of I touring experts explained that the Iutzi farm was not only self-sustaining for Fred’s great grandfather, but also created a better balance for the entire rural community at large. If you did not know the context of the 1920’s farming era and thought you were listening to a description of a 2016 farm, you would think Fred was describing a Sustainable Agricultural Research Farm testing “new” practices that actually existed as a norm in the early 1900s. The question of how we can return to less dependency and input costs and more dependence on each other and our communities brings me to the 3rd reason which drew the Illinois delegation to this year’s Prairie Festival: the wise man.
One of Wes Jackson’s long-time friends and colleagues over the past 36 years, providing endless discussions and advice, is Wendell Berry. For those how might not know him, Wendell E. Berry is an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and most importantly a family farmer in Kentucky. Wendell’s book, “The Unsettling of America” had a huge influence on my views on sustainable agriculture. At this Prairie Festival he gave an inspiring lecture on conservation and restoration in agriculture. Conservation and restoration is only what my life’s work is all about, so “Best Lecture Ever.”
He spoke of the dire need to pull away from an industrial economic driven society that looks at land only as some sort of investment to be mined or extracted in the goal of maximizing its yield potential. Continuous mass production and over-production of commodity crops is exhausting our natural resources. Focusing only on the goal of maximizing yield is pushing us into complete dependence on economic input purchases. Additionally, overproduction makes us unable to predict price drops below the input costs. We need to move back to an agrarian economic-based community that first and foremost is fair to the food producers at all times. Through being economical, viable, and socially just, farmers can and do pay closer attention to their ecological effects on the natural resources which sustain their lands. And if these farmers apply balance to the land and work to provide for the needs of the farm and the local communities, all will prosper.
If discussions about Kernza, “the perennial wheat”; Fred Iutzi’s reflections on the past and vision of the future; and a speech from Wendell Berry, one of today’s greatest agricultural writers, were not enough, then there was meeting the founding father and retiring former president of the Land Institute for 40 years, Wes Jackson. My readings of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson’s books, lead to the development of my views of agriculture and the natural world that our system of farming must exist in its fundamental laws of nature. Wes’s book “Becoming Native to this Place” inspired me to invest 50 acres of my cropland to restoring a once historic prairie called Mud Prairie. What I learned from this prairie/savanna restoration has led to a greater understanding of the overwhelming benefits and healthy balance that comes from becoming native and living with what the land provides. Wes Jackson summed it up well by stating: “When grains are grown in mixtures without annual disturbance, countless natural efficiencies inherent in nature’s ecosystems can return to the land. We can now realistically imagine farming like the prairie. The benefits we can expect include soil erosion approaching zero, the eventual end of fossil fuel dependency, the near elimination of toxic chemicals being applied to our food and, as an added plus, sequestering of carbon and a reduction of greenhouse gases.” Wes, thank you!