This question arises from a convergence of ideas. I am currently making my way through Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead, and he makes the point early on that the longevity of our relationship with a place is crucial to our ability to create resilient and regenerative farms, gardens, and homesteads. Familiarity is great, but the intimacy and trust that can develop over the long haul are as real and as key in human-land relations as they are in human-human relations, and this is what leads to well-designed, well-planned, co-evolving farms and gardens. The plans we develop when we are thinking in terms of 1, 2, or 5 years are very different than those we develop when we think in terms of 50, 70, or 100 years – or that seventh generation.
As I ponder this in terms of my own life, I get to listen to my husband – who loves to read aloud – as he explores Topsoil and Civilization, one of those classic books written at least 60 years ago to tell us how doomed we are unless we change our ways. The essential message is that the vast majority of civilizations have been very destructive to forests and soils, degrading their environments to the point where either the civilization moves on to new terrain or collapses. We haven’t changed our ways enough since the book was written to show that we are forging a new path, but there are great ideas, people, and projects out there, and it isn’t a done deal yet.
One of those people with a great idea and project is Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Kansas, who was a keynote speaker at the recent Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference. A visionary with a wonderful sense of humor, Wes gently educated his audience while keeping us laughing, hopeful, and engaged. Forty years ago, Wes pondered the same issues of longevity in one place, topsoil erosion, and the destruction of the native prairies of the Great Plains. The idea he came up with is revolutionary and far-sighted: mimic the systems of the native praires by developing perennial grains to grow in mixed polycultures.
All of the grains we rely on as staple foods are annuals. Wheat, corn, rye, barley, oats, amaranth, teff, millet, quinoa. All of these germinate, grow, flower, set seed, and die over the cycle of one year. The tillage required to grow these crops is responsible for massive amounts of annual soil erosion. Four to six tons of topsoil per acre are estimated to be lost from the Midwestern states each year. This is a serious loss, and one of the reasons that increasing amounts of fertilizers and pesticides are needed per acre to maintain existing yields. It’s a treadmill battle that farmers are losing.
Perennial grains could solve all that. Plants whose crowns and roots winter over after the top growth is harvested not only hold topsoil in place, they are at the foundation of the system that created 12 feet of topsoil in the first place. The trick, of course, is to breed perennials that put enough energy into seed production to give us larger seeds. The initial assessment was that such a breeding program would take 50 to 100 years to complete. Many felt that was too long-term of a project to invest in, but funding has been found over the years, and within the last few years, the Land Institute harvested its first crop of perennial wheat, called Kernza. The work is by no means done, but a giant step in creating a new kind of agriculture has been taken.
(This is NOT genetic modification we are talking about here. This is old-fashioned plant breeding that makes use of new technologies to mark genes and determine what to keep and what to cull. No gene splicing is involved!)
The roots of annual wheat travels 6 feet deep into the soil. The roots of the new Kernza perennial wheat are 18 feet deep! Especially as Kernza is being developed to be mixed with legumes in perennial polycutures, this is soil-building, rainwater harvesting, regenerative abundance in action.
As a culture, we tend to pride ourselves on our mobility, and I will readily agree that there are big benefits from that. My own life experience has taken me across 3 continents and to many different types of lifestyle and culture, something I wouldn’t change or trade for anything. And so I find myself wondering; If we grow an agriculture that puts down ROOTS, 18 foot deep roots, can it help us to ground our mobility into a more intimate connection with the land we are on at this moment? Can it feed us into the kind of long-term thinking that grows resilience and flexibility in a changing environment? Can an agriculture with deep, perennial roots connect us to the deep beauty of this planet and to the feeling of belonging here?