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Can Grains Keep Replenishing Themselves?

Thirty-three years ago, as a California genetics professor, Wes Jackson got to thinking about the annual planting, harvesting and re-planting cycle of the American farm -- AND about erosion, insects, drought, and chemical runoff's terrible toll. Remembering the hardy prairie of his native Kansas, Mr. Jackson wondered whether food grains could be grown perennially -- just like the prairie's sturdy grasses. And he set off to find out.

Now in his late 60s, one of American agriculture's notable contrarians is more rumpled and thicker in the waist than he was as a Kansas farmboy, coasting through what he calls one of the most misspent youths in the history of the planet.

Not until college would Wes Jackson take much besides football and girlfriends seriously. But his parents' aphorisms about thrift, discipline, restraint, and respect for the land slowly meshed with his own intellectual curiosity and with students' demands that science improve daily life.

"Students were screamin' for relevance at that time," Mr. Jackson says. "So, I clipped and tore and Xeroxed timely articles, and then began to see that the population problem is a serious problem. Resource depletion and environmental destruction were all a part of one fabric."

So in 1976 this brilliant and widely published geneticist returned to his roots, literally, and founded a combination farm and think tank called the Land Institute, outside the central Kansas city of Salina. Mr. Jackson still runs the operation from a tiny cabin next to what he calls the Sunshine farm, a 60-hectare labyrinth of test fields. In bluejeans and workshirt, he reclines in a squeaky chair with his feet propped up on his desk next to disheveled piles of papers -- a pot-bellied stove keeping the flatland chill at bay. In ways befitting an intellectual luminary -- for Mr. Jackson was awarded the prestigious, $250,000 MacArthur genius grant -- he takes the conversation in a hundred directions, not all of which the uninitiated listener can follow. For instance he's been known to say, "What we will be doing is developing elegant solutions predicated on the uniqueness of place."

The 24-person Land Institute staff now includes several other doctors of agronomy and ecology who are Jackson disciples. Their goal is to develop what they call sustainable agriculture based on deep-rooted perennial crops that mimic a prairie by fertilizing themselves, resisting insects and weeds, and popping out of the ground year after year. Mr. Jackson points to a number of plots where the scientists have succeeded in growing mixtures of wheat, sorghum, soybeans, and corn.

An ecological mosaic takes time, a LONG time. "But," reflects Mr. Jackson, "if you're workin' on something that you can finish in your lifetime, you're not thinkin' big enough!" And he laughs uproariously.

The institute's biggest hurdle, Mr. Jackson says, will be crossing swords with what he calls the corporate culture that makes billions of dollars selling farmers pesticides, fertilizers, and the machinery needed to perpetuate the annual crop cycle.

Wes Jackson predicts there will be powerful interests aligned against any switch from what he calls wasteful, harmful, profitable annual farming. "Oh," he says with a wink, "I think some people in ag schools think I'm a nut -- maybe the majority."

Farmers will become true believers in sustainable agriculture, Wes Jackson says, once crop yields approach those of single-crop, monoculture farming. "They won't be skeptical if they can make a profit. If they can cut their input costs," he says. "Farmers aren't stupid. They just want to make a profit. So I'm not worried. If the compelling alternative is there, they'll go for it."

Wes Jackson says he'd love to ease off a bit -- do some more writing. But, as he puts it, "What I'm doin's awfully interesting work." How about travel, a little fun? "I don't really go on vacations," he says. "I travel a lot. But my place -- this place right here -- to me is where the action is."

But don't call Wes Jackson a futurist. "Too heroic," he says. "We're just trying to make sense of the world."