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A Perennial Vision to Reduce Fossil Fuel Usage, Save Soil and Feed the World

July 22, 2011 |

If it were up to The Land Institute, instead of miles upon miles of amber waves of grain the American heartland would look a lot more diverse. The Salina, Kansas research institution promotes agricultural systems that are more in line with the state’s prairies—where different varieties of plants thrive side by side—than with its celebrated monochromatic wheat fields.

The Land Institute was founded in 1976 when Wes Jackson quit his job as chair of California State University-Sacramento’s environmental studies program to return to his native Kansas in order to do practical research on his ideas about alternative, sustainable agricultural methods. Jackson, who has a B.A. in biology, an M.A. in botany and a Ph.D. in genetics is widely considered a visionary in sustainable agriculture circles. He argues that because of the way we have been farming for centuries there is now a “problem of agriculture” meaning that the very way we farm is in question.

“We see two pretty significant problems,” says Scott Seirer, The Land Institute’s Managing Director. “One is the heavy reliance on fossil fuels in order to farm conventionally. Farmers are in the field with big equipment that needs power from fossil fuels and applying chemicals that are petroleum-based. As the world supply of petroleum goes down and there is increased demand from developing countries—that will squeeze farmers. Soil erosion is the other problem. For the most part soil is a non-renewable asset; it is not renewed in a farmer’s lifetime. So in the long run your ability to feed the population is decreased.”

The Prairie Model

Jackson, who serves as President of the institute, observed that during the 1930s when farmers were losing crops to drought and grasshoppers, the prairies survived just fine. He thought the heartland prairies with their diverse vegetation, each with a different role, offered good examples of sustainable systems. He designed The Land Institute’s research programs around the premise that the prairie ecosystem, where plants survive to their mutual benefit, can be replicated in farming.

The idea, which the institute refers to as Natural Systems Agriculture, is to mimic nature by looking to the prairie as a model for grain crops. The institute has been working to put this idea into practice by planting and studying the feasibility of perennial polycultures or mixtures of perennial grains. Unlike annual grain crops perennials tend to possess deep, extensive root systems which can hold soil to prevent erosion, withstand an onslaught of weeds and capture and fix nitrogen into the soil.

For reference, here’s how Natural Systems Agriculture would work in practice: one would plant a diversity of perennials—say four different agricultural crops in one field—that would survive from year to year, enriching the soil together. Among the four perennials planted in the prairie model would be one legume plant, chosen for its ability to replenish the soil with nitrogen. The diversity of the perennials planted would also provide protection from nature and pests since all the plants wouldn’t succumb to the same enemies.

Once crops are planted, farmers would not need to be in the field very often as there would be no need to administer herbicides or pesticides. Farmers would harvest a couple times a year. “You get production, plants are there protecting the soil year round, there is less soil erosion,” says Seirer. “The farmer has less work because there is less need for chemicals. So his input costs would be less.”

It’s a radical departure from the way things are done now where “we turn the soil upside down and plant huge monoculture fields of plants that leave the soil bare,” he says. “You would never see a prairie featuring just one plant, or a prairie with bare soil for very long. You don’t see that in nature because it’s not natural.”

Additional benefits of a prairie model over conventional monoculture include the following: [1]

  • A prairie model provides year round ground cover leading to a significant drop in soil erosion caused by water and wind
  • Perennials within a prairie model can capture and fix nitrogen, which serves to both improve soil fertility and prevent dissolved nitrogen from contaminating ground and surface water
  • Perennial polycultures, with their constant ground cover (to take advantage of water whenever it falls) and deep roots (to capture more water than annual plants do) are more efficient at water usage than annual plants
  • In a natural prairie, there can be more than 200 plant species in a given area and perhaps several times that number of microscopic soil animals that are important to efficient prairie operation. A true reengineering of the prairie would dramatically increase the biodiversity over a monoculture on the same plot of land
  • Perennial polycultures via their ability to increase nutrients in the soils could significantly reduce (or eliminate) the amount of commercial and animal fertilizers required for food production
  • Since cereals account for at least half of dietary energy worldwide, converting that production to perennial polycultures would mean a significant change in worldwide agriculture

Spreading Seeds

One problem the researchers at The Land Institute have been working on for the last thirty years is that perennial crops typically do not generate a lot of seeds. And you can’t have a reliable food production system without generating enough seeds for planting. So institute researchers have been cross breeding to produce perennial seed-yielding versions of cash crops.

The product that is furthest along is an intermediate wheatgrass, trademarked Kernza, which has been growing in an institute field for four years and has been milled for baking. However, Kernza is still at least ten years away from being farm ready. The institute is also working on perennial sorghum, sunflower and Illinois bundleflower.

The bundleflower is a good example of another part of the equation that is important to developing the prairie model. It’s a good legume plant—a perennial that fixes nitrogen in the soil. However, the seed doesn’t taste that great so researchers are having a hard time finding food applications for it. “Even hogs have turned up their nose at it,” says Seirer. And any plant that goes into the system has to be economically valuable.

Another important consideration is that plants have to be able to co-exist without one trying to crowd out the others e.g. by growing overly-tall in a competition for sunlight. “In the prairie plants have evolved to do that nicely,” says Seirer. “That’s what we are hoping to find in agriculture too.”

The institute regularly consults with researchers all over the world who are also trying to develop their own perennials and collaborates with them whenever it can. They are heartened by research at Cornell University on a perennial corn, and by a perennial rice project they support in China. The Land Institute also readily shares seed and research with others. “We just had some university people from Nigeria here,” says Seirer. “We are eager to work with other entities to get the word out about perennials.”

After Petroleum

Jackson, Seirer and the rest of The Land Institute staff are well aware that what they are doing barely registers with the agricultural establishment. Their annual budget of about $2.5 million to $3 million comes primarily from private donors because, as Seirer points out, the government primarily funds huge monoculture projects. They estimate that an ambitious plan to construct a research center devoted to Natural Systems Agriculture and to fund research all over the world would cost about $5 million per year over 25 years. That represents less than 1% of what is spent in the U.S. on agricultural research each year.

The institute is confident in its work, says Seirer, because it knows that although the perennials it develops in Kansas may not be successful in other places, the prairie model will be. “You can’t take what is developed here and move it carte blanche to Vermont and expect the same thing but the concept is very transferable,” he says. “What we learn here would be applied in Vermont but they would be using their own native plants.”

The Land Institute, says Seirer, is also in the business of supporting farmers. “A farmer has a banker looking over his shoulder and loans coming due and bills to pay. He’s got his pencil out looking at how he can maximize his cash flow and based on how he farms now there is no other way to do it.” The Land Institute is taking the longer view, preparing for the future. “Cheap fossil fuels won’t be around forever,” says Seirer. “Farms in Kansas will (eventually) be competing with people elsewhere in the world for a diminishing supply of petroleum products. That may change their math and when that math changes we hope we’ll have some better alternatives that might be a good bargain.”


[1]  ‘Perennial Polyculture Farming: Seeds of Another Agricultural Revolution?’ –

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