As interest swells in the Land Institute near Salina, Wes Jackson, founder and president, has snared a spokesman with a myriad of experiences to help take the mission to another level.
Josh Svaty, a farmer from Ellsworth County, former state lawmaker and state and federal bureaucrat, joined the Land Institute’s staff Monday as a vice president.
He will work with public policy issues, promote the institute’s pursuit of natural systems agriculture and raise money.
“I’ve been following Josh’s career for several years. He’s been active and successful as a politician, as (Kansas) secretary of agriculture and working with the Environmental Protection Agency,” Jackson said. “Perhaps more important, he comes from a farm background. He owns a farm and knows the rural culture of Kansas.”
Elected to the Kansas House in 2002 to his first of four two-year terms as a representative of the 108th District — covering Ellsworth and rural Saline County, parts of south Salina and Lincoln Township in Dickinson County — Svaty, 33, has been successful on several levels of public service, Jackson said.
This “right at home boy” is well suited for spreading the word, he said.
In short, Jackson said Svaty “knows the language in the sale barn (statehouse) and even Washington.”
Most of the Land Institute’s scientists are from somewhere else, Jackson said, and Svaty is someone who can pull from a wide area of expertise.
“Josh has a good eye for problems and proposed solutions,” Jackson said.
A native of Ellsworth County, Svaty said he didn’t know that the Land Institute existed until he was elected to state office.
Svaty served three full terms in the Kansas House; he resigned during his fourth term to take the job as Kansas Secretary of Agriculture.
Over the years, Svaty said he has developed an understanding, appreciation and fascination as Jackson and his staff, now numbering 33 with seven doctorate level scientists, push to return to raising food the way nature intended.
“I get an opportunity to work with Wes Jackson. That’s an opportunity you don’t turn down,” Svaty said. “You want to do something positive with your life.”
The Land Institute, 2440 E. Water Well, is the right place to pursue that, he said.
“You spend your whole life fighting natural and unnatural forces. The Land Institute’s and Wes Jackson’s mindset is to find answers through nature rather than fighting against it,” Svaty said.
The Land Institute’s mission is to create a new sustainable agriculture that minimizes damage to soil, rivers, oceans and the atmosphere.
Scientists are developing perennial grains that are grown in a way that mimics the prairie and requires less fossil fuel, conserves soil and water and weather extremes in growing conditions brought on by climate change, according to a press release. Its budget for fiscal 2014 is $2.8 million, and total assets are $11.1 million.
The Land Institute has a hand in a number of interests, and its reputation is expanding.
* There are plans to plant 90 acres of the perennial wheat grass Kernza on a University of Minnesota research farm this fall.
* Staff scientist Shuwen Wang has sent perennial wheat hybrids to other researchers in 20 different locations in eight countries.
* The Land is supporting the development of perennial upland rice in China.
* Associations include scientists at Texas A&M; University of Illinois; Kansas University; Kansas State University; the universities of Georgia, Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada; and the Konza Prairie.
* The Land has gotten a “thumbs-up affirmation of perennials” from such institutions as the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society.
The Land Institute has a need for someone to carry the message and coordinate it, Jackson said, along with raising more money.
There also is a need for someone who can deal with the politics of this expansion.
“We find that Josh is well suited for all of this,” Jackson said.
There is some travel involved, both domestic and international, he said.
While Svaty, a Democrat, admits the challenge is daunting, he said, “I had no government experience when I became a state legislator, and would like to think I was fairly successful.”
Same goes for 2009 through 2011, when he was state agriculture secretary.
“I didn’t burn the place down,” Svaty quipped.
Since then, he has served as senior adviser to the administrator of the Region 7 office of the EPA, covering Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and nine tribal nations. Svaty said he learned a lot.
“There are natural systems in crisis,” he said. “There have to be methods to do this better, that the Land Institute has been exploring since its inception.”
The organization has an “extraordinary” following, both nationally and internationally, he said.
Started in 1976, the Land Institute is “pretty solid,” Jackson said, with 650 acres paid for, and its books are “in the black and have been every year.”
“It really is time to push this to the next level,” he said.
While the institute is still years away from having some of the perennial hybrids “farmer ready,” Jackson said the Land’s mission “is no longer considered a crazy idea.”
Programs at the Land Institute are moving toward practical application in eight to 10 years, “but the methodologies will have to be worked out with agronomists,” he said.
Svaty represents another step forward.
“We’re very excited about this appointment, this willingness by Josh to come and be a part of this,” Jackson said. “We don’t think we could have done better.”
– Reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 822-1419 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.