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The Necessity of Looking to Nature as Measure

When Mar 14, 2002 6:30 PM to
Mar 16, 2002 7:30 PM
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Co-founder of the Land Institute

Keynote Speaker, 
Ethics: The Inaugural Symposium of the Rock Ethics Institute 
Conference, March 14-16, 2002 
Nittany Lion Inn

The Necessity of Looking to Nature as Measure

Wes Jackson, President of The Land Institute (founded in 1976), was born in 1936 on a farm near Topeka, Kansas. After attending Kansas Wesleyan (BA Biology, 1958), he studied botany (M.A. University of Kansas, 1960) and genetics (Ph.D. North Carolina State University, 1967). He was a professor of biology at Kansas Wesleyan and later established the Environmental Studies program at California State University, Sacramento, where he became a tenured full professor. He resigned that position in 1976.

Dr. Jackson's writings include both papers and books. His most recent work, Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place, co-edited with William Vitek, was released by Yale University Press in 1996. Becoming Native to This Place was published in 1994 and sketches his vision for the resettlement of America's rural communities. Altars of Unhewn Stone appeared in 1987 and Meeting Expectations of the Land, co-edited with Wendell Berry and Bruce Colman, was published in 1984. New Roots for Agriculture (1980) outlines the basis for the agricultural research at The Land Institute.

The work of The Land Institute has been featured extensively in the popular media, including The Atlantic Monthly, Audubon, The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Life magazine named Wes Jackson as one of 18 individuals they predict will be among the 100 most "Important Americans of the 20th Century." He is a recipient of the Pew Conservation Scholars award (1990), a MacArthur Fellowship (1992), and the Right Livelihood Award (2000).

Wes Jackson, Co-founder of The Land Institute, is committed to improving the way we practice agriculture. Contemporary agriculture involves such problems as soil erosion, chemical pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, depletion of genetic diversity, excessive extraction and utilization of water and fossil fuels, the rise of the commercial farm and the accompanying decline of the family farm, and so on. Jackson does not believe that contemporary remedies—government subsidies, resource management, biotechnology—can provide long-term solutions to these problems.

Jackson maintains that a truly sustainable agriculture can only be achieved if we cease treating the land as a possession from which resources are extracted, and instead “become native” by developing farming methods that reflect the principles of natural plant communities, such as prairies and forests, that have successfully sustained themselves over time. Such a plant community survives, he argues, by meeting the following criteria: 1) it maintains or builds its ecological capital; 2) it fixes and holds its nutrients; 3) it is adapted to periodic stress such as drought and fire; and 4) it manages its weed, pest, and pathogen populations (2001, April).

Jackson explores the clues that a natural plant community may be able to offer the farmer at The Land Institute, a research and farming cooperative committed to the development of a truly sustainable agriculture. Noting the success of diversification and cyclical growth patterns in natural plant communities, Jackson advocates farms that tend mixed species of perennials, rather than the traditional monocultural farming of annuals. The annual sowing of single-species crops is very damaging to the land because it requires extensive plowing and herbicide use, because it excessively depletes water and nutrient resources, and so on. In the hope of developing a viable alternative, he focuses his research at The Land Institute on four questions:

  1. Can perennialism and high yield go together?
  2. If so, can a polyculture of perennials out yield a monoculture of perennials?
  3. Can such an ecosystem sponsor its own fertility?
  4. Is it realistic to think we can manage such complexity adequately to avoid the problem of pests out competing us? (1994).

Affirmative answers to these questions would open up alternative routes to contemporary agricultural practices.

Jackson’s investigations also take him into non-traditional areas for agricultural research. He describes, for example, a women’s social circle that formed the core of a community for 35 years, and that became a valuable site for passing on traditional insights into land-use; or, again, he observes how minimal conveniences available in a dwindling town crippled a community by forcing the farmers to spend their money outside the community and ultimately to sell their family farms to large corporate-based farms. His goal is to see what cultural aspects of the agricultural community have contributed to the way of living and working on the land in a way that has allowed a particular community to be successful, and that may provide clues to more effective ways of engaging with the land in the future.

Overall, Jackson claims that if we wish to tend the land well, we must be “at home” with the whole system of our surroundings. This requires that we become aware of and respect the interwoven cycles of organic and inorganic beings. Thus, Jackson’s approach requires a close focus on the present as well as reflection on what the past has demonstrated to us; moreover, it demands a respect for the idiosyncrasies of each area of land that is farmed, and for the surrounding communities—human, animal, plant, mineral, etc. In short, when Jackson employs the phrase Natural Systems Agriculture as a description of his approach to agriculture, he is summoning our attention to the entire ecological setting and the motions that it exhibits, encouraging us to lift our eyes from the immediacy of the tended field and from the self-focused ends of an extractive economy, and to turn them instead toward the ecological system as a whole (2001, January).


Jackson, Wes. Becoming Native to This Place. Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

(2001, April 16). Why Natural Systems Agriculture? [WWW document]

2001, January 21). Research Agenda [WWW document]

Recommended Reading

For a copy of the following articles, please contact the Rock Ethics

(2001, April 16). Why Natural Systems Agriculture? [WWW document]

(2001, January 21). Research Agenda [WWW document]

Kirsten Jacobson prepared this summary.