Wes Jackson: How to Respect One’s Tools
By Robert Jensen
Published in Merion West · February, 2021
“I’m Robert Jensen. I’ll be your guide into the restless and relentless mind of Wes Jackson. I first bumped into Wes’ work more than three decades ago, and his ideas have had a profound influence on my thinking about society and ecology.”
Robert Jensen was joined by Wes Jackson as Mr. Jackson reflects on his life and career, with his new book Hogs Are Up: Stories of the Land, with Digressions scheduled to be published in March. Widely recognized as a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, Mr. Jackson is a biologist and author who co-founded The Land Institute, a Kansas-based research organization dedicated to furthering sustainable agricultural practices. He previously served as a professor at Kansas Wesleyan University and at California State University, Sacramento, where he established the school’s environmental studies program. During the interview, Mr. Jackson chronicles his four decades of work in the sustainable agriculture movement, his own various jobs as a young man, and this idea of caring for one’s tools. (The audio of the conversation can be accessed at https://soundcloud.com/michael-johnson-910748507.)
Robert Jensen: In this conversation, we’re going to focus on specific jobs you’ve had, Wes, and what you learned from them. I’ll start by remembering a teacher of mine, who once responded to a fellow student’s question about career planning by saying, “Listen, kid, you don’t need a career plan. You need a job. The career is the story you tell about all the jobs you’ve had once you get old.” So, with a certain skepticism in regard to talking about careers, let’s talk about the jobs you’ve held. You grew up on a farm, and you worked on farms and a ranch in the 1940s and 1950s. Did you ever want to be a farmer or a rancher yourself?
Wes Jackson: I thought ranch life—once I had spent time on that ranch in South Dakota near White River—was the good life. Lots of space, beautiful prairie—that seemed idyllic. Farming I liked well enough, especially if the scale was sufficiently small, and where I grew up in the Kansas River Valley near Topeka, the farming was small scale. I don’t know that I would like having to farm a square mile of wheat, or a square mile of corn, or a square mile of whatever. But farming is wonderful when you have lots of diversity with the crops and with the animals.
RJ: How many different crops would be grown on the farm you grew up on?
WJ: It would be around 25 or so. Some would call it a truck farm, but it was more than that. We had alfalfa, pasture, draft animals—at least up until the mid-part of World War II. It was the most diverse place I’ve ever seen. I haven’t seen any farm since as diverse as the one I grew up on.
RJ: When you drive by a farm that is now thousands of acres of nothing but wheat or soybeans or corn, how do you feel when you look at fields like that?
WJ: Well, I understand why some want that sort of scale, trying to make a living. But I would want to move from one thing to another, instead of driving a tractor for a mile straight and then turning around with your disc or your plow or your wheat drill. The big farm with the big equipment does not appeal to me. My family’s farm at one point had 10, 12, maybe as many as 15 acres of strawberries, which was probably too many strawberries, but we also had the asparagus and the watermelons and the sweet potatoes and the cantaloupes and so on. It was an operation in which you could go from one crop to another. But there was a lot of work there, and I did prefer that ranch. There, you sat on a horse, and you counted the cattle, and you saw to it that the fences were up. There were fishing poles kept beside the water hole, and if you wanted to stop and fish for bullheads, you could do it. It was very different than being on the end of a hoe handle. But being on the hoe handle taught me some things that I would not have been learned on the ranch, such as the nature of the weeds that come into the system and how you have to remove them if you’re going to get a decent crop.
RJ: It sounds like you’re saying that diversity is just more interesting, and the smaller scale allows you—in a sense—to learn more about the land. Is that a fair summary?
WJ: I think so. A watermelon is not a strawberry, and an alfalfa field is not a pasture, and a cornfield is not a wheat field. These different crops have to be managed in different ways. Harvesting your alfalfa, you hope to get maybe five cuttings a year, depending on the variety. I remember one was the old Kansas Common, and that was a reliable kind of alfalfa field. You mowed it, and then you raked it. And then if you got a rain, you had to rake it again. You had to be careful that the hay was good and dry. Then you would bale it, and those bales weighed as much as 70 pounds. The bales had to be put on a wagon and taken to the barn, and then into the loft and stacked. You had to be paying attention to detail. That was a lot of work, to get that food for the animals, for the milk cows and the draft animals needed to keep that farm going. But there was a certain amount of satisfaction in getting the hay in the barn. That’s one of my favorite memories, bringing the hay in from the field. The horses that brought it in also were used to raise the bales up in the barn through a big old door. This was all done with creaturely power, the horsepower, and that was fascinating to me. Eventually, with industrialization coming to the farm, then we were doing more of that with the tractor, and it didn’t have quite the same feel to it. Back then, I was in the age group that did a lot of the stacking of the hay in the barn. It was hard work, and it was usually hot in that barn, but you felt alive. That’s looking back on it now, of course. At the time I wasn’t standing around thinking, “I’m alive.” It’s just in retrospect.
RJ: All that work took a lot of people, and today it can be done by one person on a tractor with the associated machinery, which some would say is more efficient. How would you respond to the claim that the current highly mechanized, fossil-fuel-driven version of farming is more efficient?
WJ: First, I would ask for a definition of efficiency, and that could start an important conversation. What people usually mean by efficiency is saving time, but they’re not paying attention to how much highly dense carbon, the fossil fuel, goes into making that so-called efficiency. So, “efficient” usually is related to speed and is discounting the future by not paying attention to the energy cost. That tractor may turn out to be the least efficient way to do things if you do full-cost accounting, if you go back to mining the ore in the Minnesota Iron Range to build the tractor or the combine, and the processing in one factory and the assembly in another. By the time we add all that up, we have a big investment of time and energy. In other words, people are claiming efficiency by way of the industrial mind. They’re not looking at all of the embodied energy and time that goes into an operation.
RJ: You mentioned the industrial system and the industrial mind. You’ve had experience there, too. One of your first jobs off the farm was as a welder. Why did you go after a welding job, and were you any good at it?
WJ: I had taken vocational agriculture courses because I thought I was going to be a farmer—like a lot of the boys in the area, because our parents were farmers. And when you’re in a vocational-agriculture shop, you learn to weld. And the summer before we were seniors in high school, a friend and I went to work welding at Topeka Foundry and Iron Works. How good a welder was I? I was good enough to have that job, but I wasn’t anything close to being a pipeline welder. That requires real skill because you have to run that bead [the metal that is heated to seal the joint being welded] all the way around a circle, and your temperatures have to be right. You have to have real skill to weld pipeline. They were the gold standard. I was considered a journeyman welder, and the next year I went to Henry Manufacturing, and that’s when I became a union welder. That was interesting because I had come from a family culture, a rural culture, that said lots of bad things about unions. Now there I was a union man and getting good wages.
RJ: No matter what the job, you seem to have respect for people who do a job well, for people who respect their tools. Did that come from the farm and the welding shops?
WJ: If you’ve got a hoe, you want that hoe to be working for you, and so you don’t leave the hoe out to rust, or a shovel or plow. With a plow, you clean the dirt off and then put some oil or grease on it so that it doesn’t rust. Now, of course, that rust would come off with several passes through a field, but you want that plow to be slick. I’ve noticed that the more affluent we get, the more careless we tend to get with our tools. But some people—no matter what—they’re going to keep their tools up to snuff. That’s just the way they are.
RJ: Your friend Wendell Berry recently wrote a story called “The Art of Loading Brush” about that attention to detail. There’s an art to a task as simple as loading brush that’s been cut by the side of the road, loading it on a wagon to haul away. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. Is that the kind of training you got growing up?
WJ: If you’re going to be loading a lot of brush and you want to make only one trip to where the brush is going to be thrown off, there is an art to it, to make sure it’s all going to hang on there. And it is a kind of an aesthetic experience, to see that it looks good, that it looks right. It requires some knowledge about the nature of the load. That was especially true in the time of the draft animal. One, they didn’t move as fast as, say, a tractor would, and you also don’t want to wear your draft animals out. I have friends in Holmes County, Ohio: David and Elsie Kline, and their kids, and grandkids. I was riding on a wagon with David, and the team was going along, and, all of a sudden, the team just stopped. We were about to go up a rather small incline that I hadn’t even noticed, and David was resting the team. Now, if we had the tractor, we wouldn’t stop at that spot. That is an attention to detail that comes from the creaturely worldview.
RJ: You have said that in a sunshine economy—one that uses a lot more human and animal labor, converting energy from the sun, through food, into muscle power, rather than dependent on fossil fuels—that kind of attention to detail is much more important. Is the human future going to be a sunshine future?
WJ: I hope so. We’ve replaced people with machines out of an idea of efficiency, without ever thinking about what we mean by efficiency. A truly efficient use of resources is going to require an emphasis on a sufficiency of people rather than a sufficiency of capital and highly dense carbon.
RJ: You have spoken often about the need to repopulate the countryside in a sunshine future, that there is an appropriate eyes-to-acres ratio, the number of people needed to watch over a particular place of land. When you went off to college at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, were you thinking about that, any of these questions?
WJ: I didn’t think too much about my future back then. I was 18, and Wesleyan was a place to go play football and run track and see what all this college stuff was about. I didn’t even know what to major in. Somebody asked me what my major was, and I said “Business Administration.” I don’t know why I said that. I suppose I thought it sounded sensible. But once I took the introductory biology course, I knew biology was going to be my major.
RJ: So, you are a biology major, you graduate from Kansas Wesleyan, and you went on to the University of Kansas to do a master’s degree in botany—coming out of a family in which your parents had not been to college. Why graduate school?
WJ: I went to graduate school because I couldn’t find a job. I got married during my senior year in college. My wife had another year at Kansas Wesleyan, and I wanted to get a teaching/coaching job nearby, but I couldn’t find one. And so my biology professor—the one who taught the botany course that I had a D in but raised to a C—suggested I go to graduate school at the University of Kansas in botany. So, I applied, got accepted, and my wife was able to finish her senior year at KU. We lived in a 6-by-18-foot trailer that was a tight little place. We lived on my assistantship in the biology department, working mostly with people in the labs.
RJ: Well, some things never change. That’s still a reason a lot of people go to graduate school: because they can’t find a job. So, you finished your master’s in botany at the University of Kansas, and then you do find a job teaching high school biology and coaching track and football.
I spent two years at Olathe High School near Kansas City, and it was hard work. Five classes a day and the coaching. Then, Kansas Wesleyan invited me back to fill in for a professor who was going on leave. So, I taught and helped with football and coached track. Then I realized that what I wanted was graduate work in genetics, and that’s how I ended up at North Carolina State in Raleigh.
RJ: So now this farm kid from just outside Topeka has earned a PhD in genetics from North Carolina State. It’s the early 1960s, with a lot of emphasis on science in the United States, part of the Cold War competition with the Soviets. You had a lot of options, and you applied for jobs at big research universities. But you ended up coming back to Salina, back to Kansas Wesleyan University, and settling into a teaching job there again. What made you decide that you preferred a small liberal arts college in a rural area to a big university?
WJ: Like a lot of decisions I made, I’m not really sure. I had in my hand a contract for a teaching/research job at the University of Tennessee. I liked all those mountains well enough, and the diversity of botanical life there. But I’m something of a homing pigeon. I was more of a prairie-billy than a hillbilly. I guess that I wanted back to that prairie landscape. And there’s family back there, too. All I know is that I was not interested in just doing research and throwing results into the winds of science. I was strongly interested in genetics, but I must not have seen myself as one of those big-university research scientists. This is where the whole thing becomes a mystery, even to me. I don’t know why I did what I did. People would ask me why I turned down that job at the University of Tennessee, and I couldn’t give them any decent sort of answer.
RJ: You’re back in Salina, back at Kansas Wesleyan, you and your wife have two kids, and then a third. You settle in. But then California State University at Sacramento offered you a job and you move from biology into environmental studies. What was the attraction of California? Was it the ability to start a new program?
WJ: I was teaching at Kansas Wesleyan from 1967 to ‘71. Remember what those times, what the sixties, were like. I had students saying they wanted more relevance. Relevance was a big term back then. And so I promised to weave into the course more relevance. I started reading, and I clipped, and I tore, and I Xeroxed, and I filed. And I came up with a reader for a course, and that became the book Man and the Environment. I always say there were only two things wrong with that title. One was “man” instead of “people,” but, at the time, that was common. The other was “and the environment” instead of “in ecosystems” or “as part of the ecosphere,” which I would use now. Talking about humans as separate from the environment is a mistake.
RJ: Were you changing in this period?
WJ: When you’re a graduate student, you’re busy getting your research done and taking your coursework and satisfying a committee. You’re learning a lot, and that work on the PhD was the most wonderful educational experience that I had. During that period, I also had gone to hear Martin Luther King give a talk on campus, and I had actually been to a rally of the Klan, not as a supporter but because I was curious about what that was like. I was watching all the conflict, and it became clear to me that you can’t separate all these issues—the [Vietnam] war, racism, poverty. But, in a certain sense, I had put off acting on that because of the demands of graduate school and a young family. But, at Wesleyan, the students pushed me on relevance. I started pushing the administration on what I was calling a “survival studies” program. I got cooperation from the faculty, but I maybe was too rambunctious because the administration turned the program over to somebody else to head up, which was okay with me. That’s about the time I got an invitation from California State University in Sacramento to interview for the environmental studies department they were starting. They offered me the job, so we ended up going to California. I remember coming to the foothills of the Sierras and looking over that city and thinking, how did I get here? Sacramento turned out to be an alright sort of place, but it wasn’t long until I was taking a leave of absence to go back home to Kansas.
RJ: So, you’re in California and helping shape environmental studies as an emerging discipline. But you take a leave to go back to Salina, and you end up staying. People might think that’s not a very smart career move. You gave up a tenured faculty position. You were a full professor, and that’s a lot of security. But in 1976, you and your wife at the time, Dana, started The Land Institute, without much money or even much of a plan. What were you thinking when you gave up all that security and took a chance on a new venture?
WJ: That’s a good question and an important question and a hard one to answer. Part of it is about being young and idealistic. I was looking at the state of the world, with population growth and the deterioration of the environment, and thinking that universities were not really doing what needs to be done. And I began to imagine what would be an ideal learning environment. I remember lying in bed thinking about that. Maybe eight to ten students, half the time reading, thinking, discussing, and the other half the time hands-on. Was there something that we could do about that, here along the Smoky Hill River in Salina?
RJ: After a second year of leave, Cal State told you to either come back to work or resign.
We came awful close to going back to California and might have, had it not been for our daughter. We had had a family gathering, and I said that I thought we had better go back. Laura, who was about 16, broke into tears and said, “I thought you always said that we’re not called to success but to obedience to our vision.” Well, oh boy. We stayed. I didn’t find out until much later that she threw that line out there because she didn’t want to be in a different school again. She had been in seven different schools, and she figured that throwing my own words back at me might work. But we came awful close to going back to California.
RJ: The establishment of The Land Institute, of this alternative school in 1976, meant you were not only going to be teaching but also doing a lot of work on the land itself. Building buildings, raising a garden, managing landscapes. That was a fair amount of physical labor. Back at California State Sacramento, the life of a tenured professor doesn’t require much physical labor. Again, why would you give up the cushy life of a full-time faculty member for the hardscrabble life on the land in Salina?
WJ: One thing about being young is that you have a lot of energy, and there’s something satisfying about working hard during the day and going to bed tired. And if you’re awake and have paid attention to what’s been going on in society, there’s a sense of urgency. You know that there’s plenty of work to do. And if you can nick away at the problems and begin to develop an alternative worldview, well, the universities aren’t set up for that. The Industrial Revolution led us to do a lot of things that should not have been done. And you have to ask, what does it mean to be a whole and responsible person here? I’m not trying to be sanctimonious about all of this. It just seems to me that if you have been aware of what’s been going on, you realize that this academic world is not hacking it. It seemed to me that we needed to quit doing what wasn’t working. Yes, we need formal education, but we also need the application. And we thought that The Land Institute was going to be an application of the knowledge that we had. I guess that was all on my mind. But once again, I have never had a satisfactory answer to this question.
RJ: What do we need to quit doing today, as a society?
WJ: Well, it’s obvious that we need to quit burning so much highly dense carbon. We’ve got to do something about the population problem, and by that I mean not only human numbers but also the population of the things that the Industrial Revolution has spilled out all over the globe. We need to down-power and reduce, live within limits. That would help us make what we might call the Great Turn, to begin to find our way out of this. I think that has the potential to give us a far more meaningful life than this life defined by stuff.
RJ: That’s a challenging statement, about learning to live within limits. Sometimes young people hear older people talk about how hard it used to be, and the young people say, “Well, you just want us to suffer like you did.” But when you talk about your work on the farm, your work on the ranch, the welding, you don’t talk about it in terms of suffering. You clearly worked hard, but you don’t seem to think of it as suffering. How would you describe the hard work you did when you were younger? What did it add to your life?
WJ: Well, you didn’t think about it being hard work. You thought of it as work that needed to be done. And sure, you would sweat. You would go to bed tired. But it’s all tied up—I suppose some would say—in the search for meaning. I’m not saying that when I was welding or hoeing or mowing alfalfa that I was caught up in the search for meaning. You’re living a life in which you perceive necessity. Growing food is necessary. When I was welding, helping to build backhoes and front-end loaders for the tractors, that also seemed like something of a necessity so that people wouldn’t have to be digging ditches with shovels. When I reflect on it now, I realize that ought to be questioned. What does it mean to move the hands from the operation of a shovel to a tractor that will manipulate the backhoe, all powered by fossil carbon? How much do we stick to wholesome, responsible work and how much do we just want to get the ditch dug? The backhoe versus the shovel. These are the kinds of questions that we’ve not learned how to deal with, either in education or public discourse.
RJ: What do we need to be talking about in public?
WJ: We tend to drift toward the gee-whiz technology as a solution to everything. That’s happening with wind machines and solar collectors. They’re important, to get more renewable energy, but we haven’t done anything close to a full-cost accounting on those. When we look at all it takes to produce those machines—going back to the mining of the ore and all the processing—how much energy are we spending for what we get? Technology isn’t the answer to the big problems. I think we need a new phase in our search for meaning. That’s the kind of thing we dealt with in the classroom here at The Land [Institute]. And I don’t think you can do that in 50 minutes in a room with 200 students, especially when they’re there to get a degree to get a job. Really examining those questions for us came as the result of the physical engagement, the physical doing of things. And all of that was on my mind when we got The Land Institute going.
RJ: You grew up doing hard work, having pride in that work, and that was part of a good life. But we also know that in a capitalist economy, a lot of people work hard but not at things that provide much meaning. And the bosses are trying to squeeze even more work out of them at the lowest possible wage. Hard work is a value in the way you’re speaking of it, but the experience of hard work for a lot of people is negative; it’s numbing. The context of work matters, correct?
WJ: Here’s how I learned about that. I was in the union at Henry Manufacturing Company, and I prided myself in being able to turn out a lot, and I was actually setting production records. The steward of the union approached me and said, “Slow down. You’re going to go off to college, and these men are supporting families.” I was setting a pace that you could not expect them to continue. I was only there three months in the summer, took my paychecks, and away I went. That was an important lesson for me. I realized that on the farm we are trying to be efficient in the use of our time and get things done in a timely manner. When we worked together on the farm, that was necessary. But when I carried that to the welding shop, the shop steward was right. I was living with a lot of questions back then, and I did not know where to find the answers, but I knew that meaning comes from the mind and the body.
RJ: One last question, going back to my comment about the teacher who told us not to worry about a career but just go get a job. He said, “A career is the story you tell when you get older.” Now that you’re older, what was the career of Wes Jackson?
WJ: At The Land Institute, a primary project is perennial grain polyculture. But we have to change not only the way we farm but the way we think about the whole society, what is of real value. We can’t create a satellite of agricultural sustainability and expect it to safely orbit the extractive economy. You might say we had “ecosphere studies lite” in that period of the development of the perennial grain polyculture program. Now I think the lite has to get heavy. We have to face some hard questions about what is possible, about accepting limits. So, that’s the mission. My career has been to help keep the organization going, finding good researchers, people who have a similar sense of oughtness—what ought to be done. That has required raising money and giving talks and seeing to it that the work gets done with some measurable progress, in the greenhouses, in the research plots, and then expanding to the larger world. Our influence is now present on all six continents, and we have germplasm for crops in a lot of different places around the world. I guess that has been my journey. I’m never very good at answering those kinds of questions. They’re legitimate questions, but this whole life has been one of lots of knots that need to be tied and knots that need to be untied. It’s included a lot of error, wrong predictions, surprises, some ways of doing things we learned were inefficient, a few efficient ways of doing things. And it has been at once delightful and exasperating when things don’t go according to plan. I think that’s just the way most people live, a journey they cannot predict. And maybe that’s a good thing, that we can’t predict things. Otherwise, we would really screw it up.