Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture | Civil Eats

Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture

The Land Institute sits atop a sloping hill on the south end of Salina, Kansas, its 600 acres showcasing a living laboratory of grasses and grains being bred to “solve the problem of agriculture.” Founder Wes Jackson lays out the urgent necessity of this task in his latest book, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture, published in October 2010.

Jackson delves into the problem of agriculture by looking to our dependency on fossil fuels, the resulting, rapid degradation of the land, and the reductive, Enlightenment-era thinking that continues to drive us further into deficit spending of the earth’s resources.  He does not mince words in his account of our current predicament, but takes us on a tour of the rabbit hole that has led us to the brink of ecological disaster.  Points are laid clear through personal and evolutionary histories that highlight a need for ecosystems thinking (Part I), accounts of our losses through industrialization and climate change (Part II), and immediate possibilities for the future (Parts III, IV and V).

Throughout his life, Jackson has been informed by the prairies of Kansas and South Dakota and his encounters with such prominent figures in the conservation movement as Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Stan Rowe.  These men were both his mentors and friends and he regularly draws upon their wisdom in his writing.  Through his promotion of ecosystems thinking, Jackson disputes mainstream cultural and economic assumptions that value monetary capital over ecological capital.

He pushes the reader to undertake a major ideological reorientation that acknowledges the life-giving properties of the non-living biology (i.e., the soil and atmosphere) that is our lifeline.  In taking up this challenge, we are offered the possibility of a new agriculture that can at once conserve the land and sustain the human population.  This is the work of The Land Institute, which Jackson details through an FAQ and a 50-year farm bill he and others recently presented to Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

Jackson engages the reader with personal anecdotes and individual histories, while also requiring a willingness to mull over the information as a cow chews on its cud.  Put another way, Jackson’s style will suit those who have the patience to follow a line of thought and aren’t afraid to delve deep.  For these individuals, it will be a pleasurable and refreshing experience.  However, there are occasions when the point may elude the reader, but this should not detract from the overall breadth of the work.

This book is best suited to the conservationist or to the devoted reader of authors like Wendell Berry.  Yet it is also accessible to the educated reader possessing a passionate interest in conservation and sustainable agriculture.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

Whether or not you agree with Jackson’s assertions on our current environmental reality and future prospects, Consulting the Genius of the Place is a thought provoking read that challenges mainstream perspectives and raises issues we cannot afford to ignore.  With 40 percent of our agricultural land seriously degraded and with the loss of an additional 25 million acres each year (pg. 130), Jackson offers a timely solution that promises the potential for a “sustainable and resilient” future.

Today’s food system is complex.

Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.

A native Kansan with Okie roots, Kate Hoppe's early encounter with worm composting solidified a passion for environmental health work. She has contributed to the efforts of environmental and social organizations for over 15 years - including managing pr for Backpacker magazine's Get Out More tour, leading at-risk youth in service learning programs, and working on farms in the U.S. and abroad. Kate is currently employed in health research and is a part-time Master of Public Health student at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from

Farm Bill

Featured

Popular

Op-ed: Want an Agtech Revolution? Center Farmworkers’ Expertise

For Some Food Professionals, COVID Has Cast a Long Shadow on Their Senses

A food professional with long covid smells coffee to overcome anosmia and parosmia

As Grocery Stores Get Bigger, Small Farms Get Squeezed Out

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 13: Produce is offered for sale at a grocery store on October 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. According to government data released today, the food at home index, a measure of grocery store prices, increased 0.7% in September from the month prior and saw a 13% increase over the last year. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Op-ed: Some Regenerative Farms Are Weathering California’s Unprecedented Rainfall

SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 09: In an aerial view, water floods a vineyard on January 09, 2023 in Santa Rosa, California. The San Francisco Bay Area and much of Northern California continues to get drenched by powerful atmospheric river events that have brought high winds and flooding rains. The storms have toppled trees, flooded roads and cut power to tens of thousands. Storms are lined up over the Pacific Ocean and are expected to bring more rain and wind through the end of the week. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)