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Julie Brothers

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Farm to Fork Across America: What's the Dirt?

Posted: 11/14/11 03:49 PM ET


There's a revolution brewing on the plains of Kansas. For the past 30 years Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute, has been working to correct a major step in the wrong direction by the founding fathers of farming -- when they chose annual grain crops instead of perennials.

Agriculture nurtured the development of civilization. But annual cropping has caused widespread ecological damage and detrimental health effects for man and beast. So what gives? The soil. Lose it and you lose your ability to feed your people.

These effects have already brought down many a society. Soil is a non-renewable resource. Imagine if you will, that creating a half-inch of topsoil takes 500 years! And in just 150 years of farming, half of Iowa's soil is gone.
 
Driving across America's quilted landscape, I imagine all the tractor passes on those millions of acres each year: tilling the old crops under, prepping and petrol-fertilizing the fields, seeding, spraying herbicides, spraying pesticides, and harvesting. Up to half of those millions of pounds of fertilizer flow to our oceans. The Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone the size of New Jersey. Nature is pleading! Hello? Are the big boys listening? Come on. Demonstrate you are the knights on white horses and save what we have left. Rekindle! Make us proud of America once again.
 

Wes explains that the world's natural ecosystems feature perennials growing in species mixtures. Perennials grow year after year without replanting and needless exposure of soil to wind and runoff. They are the long-term survivors, in contrast to annuals, which die at the end of the season. Interesting coincidence, because three quarters of our calories comes from grain -- all of them annuals.
 
The Land Institute is cross-breeding annual grains with perennial relatives, and domesticating perennials directly. Perennials can make a root system ten times the volume seen in annual grains. These massive, year-round roots better collect water and nutrients, and help hold soil together so it doesn't wash away. Unlike with annuals, for years the soil is not disrupted. Perennial grains would also save on manpower, tractor fuel, and seed costs. Huge savings in times like these!
 
Who is The Land Institute's role model? The prairie. An agriculture mimicking the prairie's biodiversity would enjoy its resilience to weather vagaries, pests, and disease. Not tilling the soil allows it delicious bioactivity. With this system, many conventional agricultural catastrophes can be resolved.
 
The first perennial grain crop likely will be intermediate wheatgrass, which The Land Institute has named Kernza. Its seed production is climbing, and might make a commercially viable crop in a decade.
 

Kernza has already been used to make beer, and it tastes great! So do baked goods made with Kernza, I'm told. Upon my return to the west coast, I will use this flour in Bob Oswaks' bread kitchen, Well Bread in LA. And for when I break this bread with Bob and friends, I look forward to reciting The Land Institute's mission statement: "When people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting Nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring."
 
See you on the other side of Kansas. Signing off for now... Julie