The Land Institute Prairie Festival 2014

Since moving to the Midwest last summer in 2013, I've been searching out organizations that are focused on art and agriculture. Upon my arrival, ecological art scholar, Suzaan Boettger in New York City, told me to go to the Prairie Festival, which is an annual gathering, an "intellectual hootenanny," organized by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Its founder, Wes Jackson, has been inviting global innovators to speak addressing land conservation and food issues for 36 years. Jackson proposed the development of a perennial polyculture in 1978.

Speakers are not allowed to bring slide/powerpoint presentations and are asked to talk to attendees, typically around 1,000, although this year was around 700, with words only. It felt like a Midwest prairie version of a Chatquaqua and at times like a church sermon addressing land issues. In fact, this year, the last weekend of September, Wes invited several speakers to address religion and land ethics, to examine a more spiritual approach to living sustainably on the land/Earth.                                                  

Although I was interested in the spiritual aspects of our relationship with the land, I was most impressed with Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and her husband Douglas Tompkins, who together have managed to purchase over two million acres of land in Chile and Argentina and turn it into a National Park. After all these years of attending Bioneers conferences and other ecological restoration gatherings, I had never laid eyes on these two and only heard stories about what they were doing in South America. And, although Kristine was frustrated not to be able to share images of their preservation efforts—parkland—her words were powerful and made me realize that we really need to acknowledge people like these two pioneers who took their hundreds of millions of dollars and did something lasting with it. 

Kristine and Douglas who are very competitive by nature, both highly successful business peopleshe the former CEO of Patagonia and he the former owner of North Face and co-owner of former Esprit—made it their game to give back to the Earth rather than take away from it. The images she wanted to share of the parkland became secondary to the testament of their character, sharing how they decided to do something bigger (or more spiritual?) with what money can buy.

Needless to say, I would highly recommend this event to those who want to experience a more understated like-minded gathering, not a commerical hoopla with booths selling products. The food was amazing, including bread made from Kernza flour from the Institute lands courtesy WheatFields Bakery in Lawrence and Saturday night chili, both vegetarian and bison, were so yummy I wanted seconds (but no, they don't do that). My only complaint!

Each year The Land Institute features one artist who creates an installation in the buildings adjacent to the main lecture barn. This year A. Mary Kay, who teaches at Bethany College in Kansas, was selected. The artist was also recently included in the State of the Art exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas this fall. More HERE

For more information, go to The Land Institute Prairie Festival 2014!

See you there next year..... Patricia Watts