New Roots for Agriculture

New Roots for Agriculture

New Roots for Agriculture

New Roots for Agriculture


"The plowshare may well have destroyed more options for future generations than the sword," writes Wes Jackson in a review of practices that have brought U. S. agriculture to the edge of disaster. Tillage has hastened the erosion of irreplaceable topsoil everywhere and a technology based on fossil fuels has increased yields for short-term profits, leaving crops ever more vulnerable to diseases, pests, and droughts. Such, says Jackson, is "the failure of success." As high-technology agriculture becomes more wasteful and expensive, more farmers are being forced off the land or into bankruptcy. Jackson's major solution calls for the development of plant combinations that yield food while holding the soil and re-newing its nutrients without plowing or applying fossil-fuel-based fertilizers or pesticides. His new way of raising crops, by working with the soil's natural systems, would keep the world's bread-basket producing perpetually.


by Wendell Berry

WES JACKSON'S book, New Roots For Agriculture, is a landmark. For some time before the book came out, I had been hearing of it and of its author by way of highly complimentary rumor, and the book did not disappoint me. It offers a sound, thoroughly documented criticism of the assumptions and the effects of industrial agriculture; for that alone the book would be valuable. But it goes beyond criticism to propose practical remedies, preeminent among them the idea of developing perennial grain crops, or as he calls them, "herbaceous perennial seed-producing polycultures."

What he is proposing, in other words, is a grain field that would lie under the same live vegetative cover year after year, like a pasture. And, like a good pasture, it would not be seeded to a monoculture, but to a mixture of plants, not only to increase productivity, but to increase the range of nutritive value, to reduce the dependence on purchased nitrogen, to reduce vulnerability, to pests and disease--in short, to benefit in every possible way from the principle of diversity.

One does not need to reflect long upon the worst problems and weaknesses of our present agriculture in order to see the significance of this possibility. Perennial grains, once the plantings were established, would be an ideal remedy for soil erosion. Not only would our currently disastrous soil losses be prevented but the soil would build and heal under the continuous cover, exactly as it does under well-managed pasture. The dependence on irrigation would be reduced, for . . .

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