Jackson was born and raised on a farm near Topeka, Kansas. After earning a BA in biology from Kansas Wesleyan University, an MA in botany from the University of Kansas, and a PhD in genetics from North Carolina State University, Wes Jackson established and served as chair of one of the United States' first environmental studies programs at California State University, Sacramento.
Jackson then chose to leave academia, returning to his native Kansas, where he founded a non-profit organization, The Land Institute, in 1976. He still heads The Land Institute, which currently describes its main goal as the development of "Natural Systems Agriculture"; it also publishes The Land Report, a newsletter about American sustainable agriculture and agrarianism.
The Land Institute has 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 - reducing the need for frequent tillage, preventing erosion, and promoting plant-soil microbe relationships to establish and persist. The Land Institute attempts to breed plants not presently used in agriculture into effective producers of perennial grains in intercropping conditions. Jackson argues 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 straightforward task, and will be accomplished by public and private agricultural engineers when the demand arrives.
Wes Jackson is the author of several books and is recognized as a leader in the international sustainable agriculture movement. In 1971, Wes Jackson's first efforts to address growing environmental concerns, react to social concerns growing from the Civil Rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, and answer student requests for more relevant materials resulted in the environmental reader, Man and the Environment. After leaving academia and establishing the Land Institute, Jackson published New Roots for Agriculture, partially in reaction to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office on soil erosion.
This book expanded on ideas presented in an 1978 article, "Towards a Sustainable Agriculture," about looking to natural ecosystems, such as the prairie, to help solve the problem of soil erosion. He collaborated with author Wendell Berry, with whom Jackson has shared a longtime friendship and correspondence, on "Meeting the Expectations of the Land," in response to a Council on Agricultural Science and Technology report on agrochemicals.
Jackson's Becoming Native to This Place, published in 1994, challenges readers to develop a relationship with their ecosystems and further develops the idea Natural Systems Agriculture. 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.
Primary Author:Man and the Environment (1971) ISBN 978-0-69704-704-5
New Roots for Agriculture (1980) ISBN 978-0-80327-562-1
Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth (1987) ISBN 978-1-59098-287-7
Becoming Native to This Place (1994) ISBN 978-1-887178-11-2
Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson (2011) ISBN 978-1-58243-700-2
Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture (2011) ISBN 978-1-58243-780-4
Contributor:Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship (1984), Editor
Soil and Survival: Land Stewardship and the Future of American Agriculture (1986), Introduction by
From the Land: Articles Compiled from the Land 1941-1954 (1988), Introduction by
Farming in Nature's Image: An Ecological Approach to Agriculture (1991), Forward by
Life on the Dry Line: Working the Land, 1902-1944 (1992), Forward by
From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World (1993), Forward by
The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability (1996), Forward by
Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle (1999), Forward by
Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town (1999), Forward by
Wendell Berry: Life and Work (2007), Essay
The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge (2008), Editor
American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture and the Land (2011), Forward by
“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.”
"If your life's work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough."