Environmentalist, co-founder of the Land Institute. 1936-
Wes Jackson became concerned during the unrest of the 1960s. All of the decade’s crises were troubling, but Jackson and his wife Dana were especially worried about the environment. What could be done to stop the destruction?
From faculty positions at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina to Sacramento State University in California, Wes continued to ponder the question. In 1976 the Jacksons found the answer – The Land Institute. Established in Salina on a 200-acre site that was the Jacksons’ former homestead, the institute was a no-credit school dedicated to searching for alternative thinking about the environment.
The format of the institute changed as students were allowed to experiment. Some of the first student projects were solar windmills, boardwalks, and building houses out of newspapers.
Students constructed much of the campus from damaged scrap items such as telephone poles, railroad bridges, and a pool table. Conservation is the institute’s principal theme and is carried out with solar outdoor showers, compost toilets, and a bathroom built in a granary. By 1980 the Jacksons had become focused on agricultural research.
Wes Jackson, with a PhD in genetics, focused research efforts on developing perennial root systems for plants such as sorghum and sunflowers. One of Jackson’s aims is to control soil erosion with less tilling. “The Land,” as it is called, is building higher yields in wheat plants and working to keep the seeds on plants until harvest. It is working to gain a better understanding of which plants grow best together. Jackson’s goal is to replicate nature, not control it.
The world has begun taking notice of The Land’s efforts. Jackson was named a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment in 1990, received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992, was honored with a Right Livelihood Award in 2000, and was among the Smithsonian’s 35 people who made a difference in 2005. The Land has been featured on major national media including The Atlantic Monthly, Audubon, The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and National Public Radio.
This environmentalist, plant geneticist, and writer is hopeful for the future. Jackson believes that sustainable agriculture is possible and continues to take that message to audiences around the nation. He knows that humans must learn to live with nature on nature’s terms.
The rich collection of materials from The Land Institute’s history is preserved at the Kansas Historical Society’s State Archives & Library. The collection includes records from 1974 to present – correspondence, financial records, notes on experiments, newspaper and magazine stories, and speeches. These materials can be viewed during a visit to the Library in Topeka.
Entry: Jackson, Wes
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: June 2011
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