Nature Is the Measure: A Lesson in Sustainable Ag, Or How We (Almost) Got Wendell Berry’s Phone Number

Nature is the Measure

November 14th, Wes Jackson, President of The Land Institute, delivered a lecture at St. Louis University, “An Agriculture Where Nature is the Measure,” in which he made his point about the the audience’s takeaway explicit and early: Efficiencies inherent within the Natural Integrities. “Say it again,” he repeated three times, not wholly sold on our conviction or understanding.

President of The Land Institute Wes Jackson at his desk

Until joining the EarthDance staff, I had overlooked the interconnection between human and agrarian evolution. Jackson drove the point home with dry eloquence: Agriculture is a thread in human origin stories, from Genesis to the Epic of Gilgamesh, a universal player in our species’ development-land, culture, civilization, art, science, literature; pick one. Systems of philosophy, morality, and economics play out in farming practices, from the subject-object dualism of Greco-Roman culture to the quintessential American narrative: we are poor people who came to an empty, resource-rich land. What does this mean for farming when the dominant perspective is (in Jackson’s words), “Get the wealth, let the land take care of itself?” Moreover, what does this mean for the relationships between and treatment of ourselves, each other, and the world?

Like the many folks advancing the Good Food Movement, Jackson ascribed a metaphysical import to agriculture most of us reserve exclusively for literary analysis. The Romantic trope of evaluating nature as a “repository of symbols” while ignoring its practical value is dangerous: as only a source of beauty, metaphor, and meditative space, nature becomes easy to evaluate without any connection to agriculture, or even people. Had I been ignoring a 10,000 year old problem?

Some Problems with Conventional Agriculture:

  • soil and water conservation
  • fossil fuel dependency
  • chemical pollution
  • accelerated climate change
  • diminished biodiversity

The Solution:

  • Farm sustainably i.e. employ practices that mimic the natural world.

Making nature the standard by which we develop agricultural methods requires the study of ecosystems, defined by Jackson as “slabs of space/time.” Agriculturalists and ecologists, then, must collaborate in order to “bring wild processes to the farm.”

The Land Institute

This is what The Land Institute is trying achieve through the perennialization of different grains, including wheat, sorghum, rice, silphium and sunflowers, all of which most conventional farmers grow as annuals. Making perennial, native crops the “new hardware” rather than annuals is crux of sustainable ag. Perennials root deeper, sequester more carbon and encourage far more soil biology than annuals. This system of agriculture, over time, will both contribute to the ecosystem (think Ecosphere, on the global scale) and produce greater yields.

Sustainable Agriculture

So what does the system look like? Scientifically, a herbacious, perennial, seed-producing polyculture. Culturally? Ecologically-minded individuals. Greater social and economic justice. Sustainability, Jackson argued, must be introduced in agriculture first, if humans are to have any chance at learning limits. Ecological-mindedness requires understanding the environment not as something in which we exist but as something within which our existence is embedded. If we are ecologically-minded, then we will prioritize the question of what we can do for the environment over what we can take from it.

Petri Dish Economics: Farming in a Capitalist System

His shrewd, simple illustration of capitalism as “petri dish economics” iced the cake. In the scenario, grimness comes not from the closeness between human and bacterial behavior (we’re all just organisms hunting for Carbon-rich sources of energy, aren’t we?) but in the blind, destructive disregard for boundaries. That blindness prevents us from living as intentional human beings, which carries over into our agricultural practices. (The major difference, of course, is that the bacteria can not help itself.)


Predictably, the lecture and follow-up discussion teemed with teaching moments. The unpredictable bonus: viewing a single Contact from the screen of the speaker’s flip phone. “Oh Wendell and I talk two, three times a week,” Wes Jackson chaffed at a gawking group of EarthDancers. As a colleague coined it, that day, we were “Eco-Starstruck.” Mr. Berry, in case the message hasn’t made it your way yet: we named our cat after you.