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Soils and Souls: The Promise of the Land

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Stop me if you've heard this one. A poet, an economist, and a biologist walk into a barn in Kansas and start talking. What do you get when you cross their ideas?

Answer: Hybrid vigor.

OK, the joke might not quite work unless you're an agronomist (and maybe even the agronomists aren't laughing), but it captures the importance of the conversations at The Land Institute's annual gathering in Salina, KS. In the search for alternatives to our dead-end industrial agriculture system, Land Institute researchers are pursuing plant breeding programs that just may be the key to post-oil farming. But beyond the science, "The Land" -- that's how everyone there refers to the Institute in conversation -- provides a fertile space for mixing the ideas of people as well as the genes of plants. In both cases, the hybrid vigor -- the superior qualities that result from crossbreeding -- is exciting.

With the rain providing an intermittent backbeat on the barn roof throughout a Saturday in late September, the 2010 Prairie Festival began with three talks -- by poet/novelist Wendell Berry, economist Josh Farley, and biologist Sandra Steingraber -- that were insightful on their own, but even more intriguing as an intellectual mash-up. The three were telling the story of how sin brought us to this place, how we must redefine success if we are to atone, and how essential that change is for our own safety. I had come expecting those kinds of insights and analyses, but surprisingly I left the barn that day with one revelation burning in my brain: While evil lurks in many places, it is most concentrated in fossil fuels.

On Sunday morning, Wes Jackson, The Land's co-founder and president, played the role of ecologically evangelical preacher. We do indeed face challenges, Jackson testifies, but there is a better way to be found in Natural Systems Agriculture. Perennial polycultures can deliver us from that evil.

But before getting to the solutions, we have to understand the problem, which starts with sin.

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