Jackson decries annuals

by Austin Zalkin | 10/23/98 5:00am

Wes Jackson, co-founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., warned about soil erosion in America and called for more environmentally-focused higher education in a speech in 105 Dartmouth Hall last night.

Jackson told a crowd of 100 students and community members that current annual crops such as corn, wheat and sorghum cause great destruction to ecosystems, yet the government has chosen to subsidize farmers who cultivate these crops and who use dangerous pesticides.

Jackson questioned this practice and also wondered why those in power do not seem to feel, as he does, that "soil is more important than oil."

At the Land Institute, a 278-acre research and education center, Jackson explores ways to replace annual crops with perennials -- which do not require yearly replanting -- without losing important products.

He discussed experiments of his own and others in perennializing the essential annual crops which he anticipates will be successful.

"We challenge [the notion] that perennialism and high seed yield can't go together," Jackson said.

He added that he hopes it is possible "to build an agriculture to mimic the structure of a native prairie."

Natural systems like prairies protect the soil from erosion, which he said is a major problem.

He said soil levels have declined somewhere between a third and a half since North America was first inhabited by mankind.

On a part of his own land, the Sunshine Farm, Jackson also investigates whether "natural-systems agriculture can compete with monosystems agriculture."

His continued research has resulted in no definite conclusions, but Jackson said he remains optimistic that his options are better than the otherwise inevitable alternative.

"Right now we're like the person who jumps off a 100-story building and, when he gets to the 10th floor says 'it's going all right so far,'" Jackson said.

If no action is taken, Jackson warned, the environment will hit rock bottom.

In addition to speaking of his scientific efforts, Jackson commented on the state of education in America.

He complained that students learn to seek profits instead of preserving the environment.

Colleges must "cultivate an agrarian mind instead of an industrial mind," he said.

Jackson even proposed a new major for colleges -- he termed this field of study the "Homecoming major."

He suggested that interested students from such schools as "Harvard, Dartmouth and Kansas State" be taught environmentally sound cultivation techniques and be sent out to farms, our ancestral homes, to implement them.

Jackson's unique work led Life magazine to name him one of the 100 important Americans of the 20th century.

His writings are among the most influential in the agricultural conservationist movement.

Jackson's speech was sponsored by the Environmental Studies program. His speech was part of the George Link Jr. Environmental Awareness Lecture series.