LAWRENCE — This weekend, when Wes Jackson, founder of the Salina-based Land Institute, addresses graduates at the University of Kansas’ 141st annual Commencement, it will cement a deepening relationship between the two institutions.
Recently, the Land Institute and the Environmental Studies Program at KU founded a partnership intended to encourage research in the development of “perennial polycultures.” Participating faculty members in the initiative come from a diverse group of units across campus, including ecology and evolutionary biology, history, geography, geology, anthropology and law. Moreover, the initiative is part of an even larger consortium including researchers from Kansas State University and the Konza Prairie LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) Program.
Rather than sowing annual grain crops, which die every year, the partnership promotes the cultivation of perennial grains, which lay dormant in the winter, but which regrow every year from extensive root systems. Moreover, the research collaboration will encourage planting of multiple crop species in a field, rather than one monoculture, which is today’s common practice.
“This mission-oriented partnership will build the interdisciplinary research and training infrastructure behind a very different type of agriculture that mimics our natural environment,” said Christopher Brown, professor and director of environmental studies at KU. Brown said there are numerous problems with conventional agriculture that depends on annual planting.
“One of the disadvantages of planting annually is that you have bare ground for part of the year,” he said. “Soil erosion is a huge problem. You get it from wind and water. Also, leaving the soil bare lays out a welcome mat for weeds, and has very poor retention of nutrients—regardless of whether they are from organic or chemical fertilizers.”
However, planting “polycultures,” or more than one species of perennial food plants in the same field presents a chance to sidestep many of these problems, according to the KU researcher.
“For instance, if you have perennial polyculture, you don’t have to plant year after year,” said Brown. “You can stabilize soils and nutrient systems. Instead of cultivating one plant with a lot of inputs that require gobs of energy, other plants help out by crowding out weeds, providing nutrients and controlling insects.”
However, perennial grains are not yet ready to plant in farmers’ fields. They still require intensive breeding, genetic analysis and extensive testing for food qualities. That is the Land Institute’s expertise, which will be coupled with the cultural, social and environmental knowledge among researchers at KU’s Environmental Studies Program.
“We’re already writing grants for joint activities from the National Science Foundation and private foundations to do some of the basic research,” Brown said. “With the KU-Land Institute partnership, we hope to bring in people from international schools and laboratories. For example, students could come with funding from governments and foundations to do graduate and postdoctoral work here with researchers who are part of our initiative. KU researchers have expertise in understanding agriculture as an earth and sociocultural system, and we can help the Land Institute develop that aspect of its work.”
For the Land Institute, working with KU and KSU could lead to a higher profile globally as well as in the state of Kansas.
“The partnership with KU Environmental Studies program is a critical piece of a larger consortium between The Land Institute, KU, KSU and the Konza Prairie LTER to promote collaborative research — research that promises to change how we grow the food we eat, both here in Kansas and around the world,” said Tim Crews, director of research and ecologist at the Land Institute. “The consortium will promote the development of a perennial agriculture that accomplishes with ecological interactions what today we achieve with purchased inputs. The consortium will facilitate research by faculty, graduate students and post-docs in Kansas, and will also encourage international research exchanges.”
Already, the partnership has hosted a delegation from Uruguay with interest in developing perennial polyculture in their nation. That visit promises to be the first of many as the Kansas-based consortium looks to broaden and deepen knowledge of a more sustainable form of agriculture.
The researchers said there is much work to be done to popularize and make commercially viable the techniques of perennial polyculture.
“The barriers are that we’re locked into a system of agriculture supported by agricultural corporations, the insurance system and government programs,” said Brown. “We’ve been doing monoculture focused on yield production for decades — and this tradition has been passed on from generation to generation. Perennial polyculture requires a cultural shift. To imagine producing food from something that looks more like natural prairie would be completely different for our society.”