We still see, furthermore, that we are not helpless. Two great powers, if we will align ourselves with them and use them, are in our favor. They are land health and conservation. Land health, Aldo Leopold wrote, “is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.” And “Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve that capacity.”

 Land health is still with us. In most places in our state we can prove this just by stopping a gulley. Leopold proved it by reforesting an exhausted farm. Whenever the ground is covered with perennial plants – and we can help with this – it is preserved from erosion, it conserves water, it offers year-round benefits to us and to other creatures. The ground has healed. It is well. If the ground is covered by native perennials, it is even better. Kentucky’s Natural Heritage (University Press of Kentucky, 2010)

 As I contemplate two more of Wendell Berry’s authentic reasons for hope, Wes Jackson comes to mind.

Friend of the Berry Center, founder and president of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson brings hope to the movement for a sustainable agriculture in this country. In thinking about sustainable alternatives in agriculture and energy Dr. Jackson came to the conclusion that finding solutions to the problems of industrial agriculture lay in consulting “the genius of the place”. His place is his 600 acre farm on the prairie in Kansas.

Plowing required by yearly plantings of annual crops can lead to erosion, a substantial cost of industrial agriculture. Erosion-deterring no-till practices require the use of harmful chemicals to subdue unwanted plants. Monoculture farming makes crops subject to disease and infestation by pests and requires more harmful chemicals. Soil remaining in any field loses nutrients.

The patch of prairie that is his own farm contains a diverse mix of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and cottonwood trees. These perennials hold the soil in place. They live year-round and survive harsh conditions, are resilient to disease and pests because of the variety of plant life present in this ecosystem. Developing perennial grains for the prairie ecosystem will preserve the soil and could reverse the damage to the soil caused by chemical applications, irrigation, annual seeding tillage and tending.

The Land Institute scientists have patented a variety of wheatgrass called Kernza.  Kernza is a perennial grain crop and substitute or enrichment for flour. Other candidates for perennial production: Illinois bundleflower (a perennial legume), sunflower (oilseed or a food grain crop) and sorghum (feed grain).

Wes Jackson says that if you are working on something that can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough. The research required to implement a perennial agriculture will take years more. Changes in the culture of our industrial agriculture system will take even longer. But by subscribing to his work – restoring soil health, preserving valuable ecosystems and planting more perennials, we commit to restoring the soil, our most precious natural resource. Thus we can assure real home-land security.

Land health, conservation – these and other efforts at renewal through the simplest of actions (stopping a gulley on your land by planting perennials there) to the strategic and most complex (a Fifty-year Farm Plan and perennial agriculture) offer exactly what Wendell Berry thinks we should focus upon – reasons to be hopeful.

Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry will have a conversation about agriculture and the future of farming – a discussion which will be moderated
by Mark Bittman – at Cooper Union Foundation in New York City on April 4, 2014. The event is sponsored by The Berry Center, The Land Institute, The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, The Buckminster Fuller Institute, Edible Manhattan, the Wright Ingraham Institute and Brown-Forman. It is free and open to the public.