The Land Institute explored alternatives in appropriate technology, environmental ethics, and education, but a research program in sustainable agriculture eventually became central to its work. In 1978 Jackson proposed the development of a perennial polyculture. He sought to have fields planted in polycultures, more than one plant in a field, as in nature. Jackson also wanted to use perennials, which would not need to be replanted every year - that would leave the soil more intact, preventing erosion, and allowing important relationships between soil and plant to continue. The Land Institute attempts to breed plants not presently used in agriculture into effective producers of perennial grains in intercropping conditions. Jackson argued that this version of agriculture used "nature as model", and to pursue that end The Land Institute has studied prairie ecology.
Entering its third decade, The Land Institute is beginning to demonstrate progress in developing the perennial crops called for in the Natural Systems Agriculture model. Programs in wheat, sorghum, and sunflower are generating crop lines displaying both perenniality and agriculturally-significant seed yield. Research on integrating these new plants into polycultures also continues. The Land Institute is not itself developing machinery suitable for one-pass harvesting of grain polycultures. It instead takes the position that integration of existing materials separation technology into harvesters is a straight-forward task, and will be accomplished by public and private agricultural engineers when the demand arrives.
Wes Jackson is the author of several books including New Roots for Agriculture and Becoming Native to This Place and is recognized as a leader in the international sustainable agriculture movement. He was a 1990 Pew Conservation Scholar, in 1992 became a MacArthur Fellow, and in 2000 received the Right Livelihood Award. His work is often referred to by author Wendell Berry, with whom Jackson has shared a longtime friendship and correspondence.
“If we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, sustainability will not happen.”
“By beginning to make agriculture sustainable we will have taken the first step forward for humanity to begin to measure progress by its independence from the extractive economy.”
“Ecosystem agriculturalists will take advantage of huge chunks of what works. They will be taking advantage of the natural integrities of ecosystems worked out over the millennia.”