Holy Kernza ™

I triumphantly managed to tear myself away from watching Leslie Hall videos on youtube to bring you this week’s post. I’m a sucker for ridiculous comedy, especially when it comes wrapped in golden spandex bodysuits. Which leads perfectly into a discussion on plants.

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a gentleman who is revolutionizing the field of agriculture. His name is Dr. Wes Jackson and he is the president of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

Jackson left a tenured teaching position in the 70s to go and live on a farm and learn to grow his own food. “They thought I was crazy”, Dr. Jackson said at a talk in the McGill New Residence ballroom two weeks ago.

Life magazine named Jackson one of 18 individuals it predicts will be among the 100 “important Americans of the 20th century.” He was named one of Smithsonian magazine’s “35 who made a difference” in November 2005.

In 2000, he received the Right Livelihood Award, which is like an alternative Nobel Peace prize. The impression that you get form him, however, is of a locomotive that is nowhere near running out of fuel.

Three of the central issues that Wes works with are soil and water contamination, and making plants regenerate on their own without much external input. He gets things done by letting nature manage itself without the usual gamut of interference that agriculture presents.

Dr. Jackson’s work is revolutionary. The plants he is breeding do not require pesticides, replanting or heavy machinery, so Monsanto and Cargill will not be knocking on his door anytime soon. He manipulates his plants by acting as a pollinator, selecting or hardier, more resilient plants that could eventually take the place of wheat at mealtime.

“We’re saying we want to build an agriculture based on the way natural ecosystems work,” Dr. Wes said. Traditional agriculture, he explained, does the opposite by tearing up and poisoning the ground. “This has validated the idea that nature has to be subdued or ignored.”

A great accomplishment that he brought to show us was Kernza ™. This is a plant not unlike wheat, only it does not have to be replanted every year. This type of plant is called a perennial, which is almost unheard of in the plants that we have come to depend on, like corn and wheat. As a result of being allowed to grow every year, the root system becomes massive.

Kernza on top. Wheat below

Not only will this and the other plants that the Land Institute are perennializing, help farmers by massively cutting down on the cost of food production, it also makes a mean pancake.

“You can’t tell the difference in taste between Kernza ™ and wheat, and the nutritional value is highly superior,” said Dr. Jackson.

Jackson and his team are scientists whose work and abstract ideas become a material reality in the field. There are several PhD students working at the Land Institute, and they are always on the lookout for younger people to become interested in plant breeding. They are like farmers wearing lab coats.

As if changing the face of agriculture weren’t enough, the folks at the Land Institute bring it all together in an annual celebration of life during the Prairie Festival. This gives the Institute the opportunity to unwind and celebrate healthy ecosystem farming, enjoy some music and listen to discussions relevant to the work being done.

It is taking place this year at the end of September and will feature the eminent Wendell Berry as a speaker. If you enjoy eating breakfast, then I highly encourage you to make it to Kansas this fall.

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