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Lessons From the Native Prairie For Self-Sustaining Farmland

A radical agriculturist finds unique solutions to today's wasteful farming methods through the Land Institute, a Kansas research center.

Pioneering ecologist Wes Jackson is seeking a radical, futuristic solution to the problems of American agriculture in a familiar, age-old setting - the prairie.

Dr. Jackson's approach is rooted in his faith in nature's wisdom and skepticism of what he calls ``human cleverness.'' His thesis is that modern, scientific farming as we know it is largely a wasteful mistake. His goal is to use the native prairie as a guide for creating a self-sustaining, high-yielding alternative to conventional farming and its squandering of soil, water, and fuel.

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``We are a species heavily bent on extraction as a way of life,'' says Jackson, who is considered one of America's most radical agriculturalists. ``Look at the prairie. It relies on sunlight and features the recycling of materials. That ecosystem has worked for thousands of years; its laws must be more trustable than our own,'' he says.

Jackson surveys more than 100 acres of native tall-grass prairie from his office at the Land Institute, a nonprofit research center he founded in 1976 along the Smoky Hill River in central Kansas.

For the past 15 years, Jackson has led a team of plant breeders and soil scientists at the institute in experiments designed to test his vision of a ``domestic prairie.'' Planted with a mixture of edible, high seed-yielding perennial crops, the ``domestic prairie'' would combine the ecological benefits of an untilled grassland with the productivity of conventional grain farming.

Last week, Jackson received recognition for his efforts with a tour of the Land Institute by United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Richard Rominger and Paul Johnson, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and other US officials.

The officials are considering funding the Land Institute to train scientists to carry out experiments based on the institute's research at some of the nation's 26 plant material centers. The scientists could also conduct comparative studies on the 37 million acres of erodible land that has been replanted with native grasses under the 10-year-old Conservation Reserve Program.

While Jackson and his colleagues acknowledge that decades of research and major hurdles lie ahead, mainstream agronomists have praised their findings so far.

``The Land Institute has tackled some pretty incredible stuff,'' says Charles Francis, director of the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems at the University of Nebraska.

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Over the past 100 years, according to institute reports, farming has depleted half of the rich topsoil formed by North America's prairies. Each year 3 billion more tons of US topsoil wash or blow away, causing rivers and dams to silt up. Of the 400 million acres of tilled land in the US, all but 48 million acres are considered susceptible to erosion. Moreover, conventional farming depends on vast quantities of fossil fuels, with the ratio of energy expended to food energy consumed in the US now 10 to 1. In addition, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides is polluting the environment.

Farming modeled after the prairie, in contrast, would conserve existing soil with a thick, untilled ground cover while generating rich, new sod. It would run on sunlight instead of oil and gas and sponsor its own fertility. And it would rely not on man-made chemicals but on the diversity and hardiness of its plants to keep pests and disease at bay.

The model ``domestic prairie'' would be harvested one or more times each year, but additional plants or nutrients would be needed only every five or 10 years, says Jon Piper, a plant ecologist at the institute.

Land Institute researchers began their work in the 1970s by gathering several thousand herbaceous, perennial, and winter-hardy plants from 150 natural populations around the world. Some of the most promising experiments have involved four plants: eastern gama grass, a warm-season relative of corn; mammoth wild rye, a cool-season relative of wheat; Illinois bundleflower, a legume; and Maximilian sunflower.

Experiments with a mutant form of eastern gama grass, for example, showed that the grass could produce from double to quadruple the seed yield without stunting the growth of its roots. The finding challenges the belief that a strict trade-off exists between seed yield and root growth. Studies at the institute have also indicated that seed yields and resistance to pests and disease increase when two or more prairie plants are grown together in a ``polyculture,'' rather than separately in a ``monoculture.''

In 1991, the Land Institute established the Sunshine Farm - an ecologically ``smart'' grain farm using renewable energy and organic agriculture - as a standard to test the ``domestic prairie'' against. The 10-year project, which employs draft horses and tractors fueled with farm-grown vegetable oil, is also exploring to what extent a conventional farm can supply its own energy and fertility while producing food.

To explore what kind of social environment would best support the ``domestic prairie,'' the Land Institute has bought property and set up shop in tiny Matfield Green, a town of 50 people in southeastern Kansas.

As he writes in his latest book, Jackson says Americans should reinhabit the thousands of small, declining towns on the Great Plains not out of ``mere nostalgia'' but as a ``practical necessity'' to address ecological and social problems from the grass roots.

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