Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative Grains Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wes and Dana Jackson founded the Land Institute for the development of perennial polyculture alternatives to annual grains, the harvest of which has caused severe erosion. The institute’s goal would continue to be the creation of a sustainable agricultural system that would produce high grain yields.

Summary of Event

In September, 1976, Wes Jackson and Dana Jackson founded the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, to research and develop perennial grains that could be harvested as food for humans and animals and could be grown mixed together as plants grow in a prairie. The Jacksons envisioned a time when perennial crops would take the place of the annual grain crops of wheat, corn, and rice, among others. According to the Jacksons, the method of harvesting annual grain crops in the United States had led to erosion that seriously diminished the soil. If perennials could be bred to be sufficiently productive, they could become the basis for a different, more sustainable system of agriculture. Agriculture;grains Soil erosion Perennial polyculture [kw]Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative Grains (Sept., 1976) [kw]Founded to Develop Alternative Grains, Land Institute Is (Sept., 1976) [kw]Alternative Grains, Land Institute Is Founded to Develop (Sept., 1976) [kw]Grains, Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative (Sept., 1976) Land Institute Agriculture;grains Soil erosion Perennial polyculture [g]North America;Sept., 1976: Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative Grains[02510] [g]United States;Sept., 1976: Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative Grains[02510] [c]Agriculture;Sept., 1976: Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative Grains[02510] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept., 1976: Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative Grains[02510] Jackson, Wes Jackson, Dana Rodale, Robert Berry, Wendell Nabhan, Gary Paul

Wes Jackson grew up during the Great Depression on a forty-acre farm near Topeka, in the Kansas River valley. In 1971, after acquiring a master’s degree in botany and a Ph.D. in plant genetics, he was granted a tenured teaching position at California State University in Sacramento. In California, he and his wife, Dana, also a native of the Kansas prairie, were influenced by the growing environmental movement. After three years in Sacramento, they returned to Kansas, looking for a way to use their expertise to solve the environmental problems facing agriculture there.

In September, 1976, the Jacksons opened a school to explore those issues with a handful of students. They opened the school on a minimal budget in a building they built themselves. The institute also contained a greenhouse and 277 acres of prairie used for observation and research. The annual budget was drawn mostly from private foundations, which were supplemented by individual donations, tuition fees, Wes Jackson’s speaking fees, and the sale of produce from a market tended by students. About one dozen students would cycle through the institute program every year.

Dana Jackson became the administrator for the institute, while Wes Jackson became its theorist. His work on perennial grains evolved in response to the question he asked himself: How could the erosion that was stripping North America of its best soil be permanently stopped?

When harvesting major grain crops, farmers strip the crops from the soil because they are annuals, which only fruit once. Then the soil is bare to wind and water, which carry soil away until seed is planted and roots grow, holding the soil down again. Jackson estimated that soil was eroding 25 percent faster than in the days of the Dust Bowl, although changes in methods of estimation made comparison difficult. It was generally accepted, however, that one-third of the cropland topsoil that was present when the first Europeans arrived was gone. For every bushel of corn grown in Iowa, it has been estimated, two bushels of soil are lost. This style of agriculture, Jackson pointed out, is unsustainable at such a rate of soil loss.

Jackson was not the first to criticize the U.S. model of agriculture, nor was he the first to propose sustainable models as an alternative. In this he joined Robert Rodale, Wendell Berry, and Gary Paul Nabhan. Rodale founded Rodale Press, which publishes the magazine Organic Gardening as well as numerous books and pamphlets on the subject of agriculture. In 1977, Berry first published his influential The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Unsettling of America, The (Berry) in which he critiqued the destructive effects of U.S. agriculture on rural ecology and community. Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and author, has sought to find and preserve locally adapted seeds, often those developed over the centuries by indigenous people of the Americas, which are being marginalized or lost due to the encroachment of hybrids.

In his books New Roots for Agriculture New Roots for Agriculture (Jackson) (1980) and Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth (1987), Altars of Unhewn Stone (Jackson) Wes Jackson joined these men in their critiques of mainstream agriculture. Jackson was concerned that agricultural chemicals had become the leading polluter of streams and groundwater and that groundwater was being mined to support irrigation, depleting aquifers and leaving accumulations of salt in crop and pasture lands. Irrigation, he pointed out, requires the use of fossil fuel, as does the manufacture of fertilizer and pesticides. By the time the average U.S. citizen eats a single calorie of food, 9.8 calories of fossil fuel have already been used in the production of the food. Genetic diversity has been narrowed as scientists have bred small numbers of higher-yield hybrids to replace locally adapted seeds. In addition, the new hybrids are more vulnerable to pests and diseases than the old, and thus are more dependent on pesticides. Pesticides Jackson called this model of agriculture “extractive,” based as it is on the mining of soil, water, and petroleum. Furthermore, he criticized agriculture for becoming a capital-intensive industry in which many farmers, particularly smaller ones, have gone into debt to stay afloat but have lost their farms anyway. This trend has led to the destruction of numerous agricultural communities across the United States.


Although Jackson shared his critique of large-scale U.S. agriculture with Rodale, Berry, and others, he was the first to conceive of a way to reform agriculture at its biological roots by replacing annual monoculture with perennial polyculture. While most scientists interested in plant genetics work to improve annuals, Jackson and his students broke new ground in their work with perennial polycultures. Theirs was a long-term project, likely, by Jackson’s estimation, to run one hundred years before the desired results can be achieved, but he believed the potential benefits would make the effort worthwhile. Land Institute

Wes Jackson, a proponent of perennial polyculture, walks on the grounds of the Kansas-based Land Institute, which he founded with his wife in 1976.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Jackson used the prairies as his model for what he called an ecological agriculture. The prairie is a complex system of many plants coexisting. There, soil is built up by plant roots rather than lost through erosion, and because the roots are dense, deep, and never stripped from the land, they help to retain water.

Typically, three families of plants are intermingled in the prairie: grasses, legumes (a family of plants able to take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil), and composites, to which daisies and sunflowers belong. Jackson wished to retain this mix in his fields of the future. He imagined seed mixes sown every twenty years and harvested in such a way that the plants remain to produce again.

Perennials have a different reproductive strategy than annuals: They save a significant proportion of their energy for their root systems rather than putting it into seed production. The most obvious challenge to Jackson’s vision is the difficulty of breeding perennials with increased seed yields.

Other challenges include developing higher-yield perennials that animals and humans will want to eat, as well as breeding plants with heads of grain that will resist shattering as they are harvested, as wild grains generally release their seed when knocked. Not least, the complexity of the prairie ecosystem must be better understood; for example, what interaction occurs in the soil between roots of particular crops and fungi?

Researchers at the Land Institute have made a number of discoveries. They have found a strain of the Illinois bundleflower, for example, that may be able to yield more than 3,000 pounds of seed per acre and an alta fescue that can produce 1,460 pounds of seed per acre, while Kansas winter wheat produces an average of 1,800 pounds of seed per acre. Particular mutations discovered by researchers at the institute and elsewhere may provide momentum in the process, as, for example, the discovery of a kind of grass that has four times as many seeds as usual in long, soft bracts rather than the usual tight hulls.

Jackson claimed that if the fertilizer and pesticides on which the current dominant crops depend were removed, those crops could not survive. Jackson countered skeptics of his work by pointing out that the productivity of select perennial grains was comparable to that of the high-yield annuals minus their inputs, or external treatments such as fertilizers.

Jackson’s goal would continue to be the creation of an agriculture that would need fewer inputs. Energy would come primarily from the Sun, not from petroleum, and the demand for water would be reduced. Because fields would be in polyculture, pests and diseases would not affect all plants in the same way, and would not be as devastating as they are to a monoculture. Some prairie species function as repellents for certain insects, a quality Jackson and his cohorts sought in their breeding programs. Perennial polyculture could include in its ecosystem the insects, birds, animals, and even fish that have been eliminated by pollution and habitat destruction from the fields of conventional agriculture. The institute’s primary goal of saving soil would be its first and most demonstrable benefit. Jackson estimated that if all the acreage in the United States planted with the most common crops were switched to mixed perennials, the soil saved annually would exceed 3 billion tons per year.

The perennial agriculture Jackson proposed would have a more limited impact on the immediate environment and those locations where petroleum is extracted and processed. As this agriculture would also be far less capital-intensive, the pressure to expand into ever larger units would be reduced, allowing small farmers to reduce debt, and stay on the farm. According to Jackson, the health of the whole community, human and nonhuman, would be improved.

Time is not the only obstacle to Jackson’s work. Many experts believe that the usual methods for containing erosion, such as contour terracing and crop rotation, are sufficient, despite the quantities of soil still lost. In particular, Jackson would lament that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not interested in undertaking the development of perennial polyculture. Such involvement could, he argued, speed the process along by decades.

In the early twenty-first century, the Land Institute remained a small institution at work on a large-scale scientific investigation that could have major implications for soil and agriculture in the United States and around the world. The study’s harshest critics have expressed doubt that it will succeed. Others believe that Jackson’s most enduring legacy may be that he stimulated scientists and agriculturalists to look to nature, rather than to industry, as a model for solving environmental and economic problems. Land Institute Agriculture;grains Soil erosion Perennial polyculture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beeman, Randal S., and James A. Pritchard. A Green and Permanent Land: Ecology and Agriculture in the Twentieth Century. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001. Explores the alternative agricultural ideas introduced in the United States in the twentieth century and how agricultural issues played a key role in the rise of the environmental movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. 3d ed. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. A seminal book critiquing U.S. agribusiness and promoting sustainable agriculture in a highly literate style, by a friend and colleague of the Jacksons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Robert, ed. Our Sustainable Table: Essays. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. A collection of essays by Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, Gary Paul Nabhan, and others, all concerned about the quality of food and the way of life that produces it. Jackson’s article is characteristically far-ranging but practical.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eisenberg, Evan. “Back to Eden.” The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1989, 57-89. An elegantly written journalistic account of the Jacksons’ work. Includes interviews and extensive background information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Wes. Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987. A slim book of essays by the founder of the Land Institute, in which Jackson is as likely to quote the Bible or Tolstoy as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He cites statistics when necessary, but there are neither footnotes nor an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Listen to the Land.” Amicus Journal 15 (Spring, 1993): 32-34. A short, passionate article arguing against biotechnology and in favor of “agro-ecology.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. New Roots for Agriculture. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, 1980. Jackson’s first book of essays. Similar in style and content to Altars of Unhewn Stone. Footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luomo, Jon R. “Prophet of the Prairie.” Audubon 9 (November, 1989): 54. A short and readable introduction to the Jacksons and their work, including comments by skeptics.

Growth of Organic Farming

Commoner Publishes The Closing Circle

Berry Publishes The Unsettling of America

Payment-in-Kind Program Compensates U.S. Farmers to Abstain from Planting

Genetically Engineered Food Reaches Supermarkets

Categories: History