Salina's annual Prairie Festival is an eclectic celebration of sustainable agriculture
It’s just after sunrise and people are already checking in at the Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival.
It’s a beautiful morning in the Smoky Hills in Salina, cool and crisp with fog lingering on the paths and fields. There’s a line of cars on the highway and a line of people waiting to get their schedule of the day’s events.
A lot happens at the festival each year … a barn dance, concerts, art exhibits, nature walks. Plus lots of lectures by some of the world’s leading scientists.
This morning, people are arriving early for a festival favorite – the pancake breakfast.
And these are not just any pancakes. They’re made with the Land Institute’s most important crop: Kernza.
So what is Kernza? And, for that matter, what is the Land Institute?
I visited with Tim Crews, chief scientist and soil ecologist at the institute, and Aubrey Streit Krug, the director of Ecosphere Studies, who took me on a tour.
“The Land Institute is a nonprofit … research organization dedicated to developing an agricultural system that captures many features that exist in natural ecosystems that don't currently exist in the grain agriculture that feeds humanity today,” Crews explained.
Those features revolve around sustainability. The Land Institute is focused on developing new crops or adapting existing crops, plants that can feed the world without relying on traditional farming techniques that require fertilizer, gallons of water and tearing up the soil to replant.
We walked through the native prairie at the top of a hill overlooking the Smoky Hill River and the institute’s research fields.
“In this central part of the state, we're kind of at the edge of tall grass into mixed grass,” Streit Krug said. “ So we definitely are seeing big bluestem, there's little bluestem … Forbes plants in the sunflower family…”
And many others. Plants with long roots that can reach water during dry months; others that can draw nitrogen back into the soil. Plants that work in harmony with each other and hold the precious topsoil in place.
And this is where Kernza comes in.
“This field in front of us is a breeding nursery of Kernza plants,” Crews said from our vantage point on the hill. “And it's harvested at the end of July. And if we have any moisture in August, it tends to green up and produce a crop of grass after the grain.”
And because it’s a perennial, it grows back every year. The deep roots hold the soil and help the plant survive during drought.
The Land Institute is also working on creating perennial versions of existing crops.
“Crossing them with their wild relatives … to bring perenniality into that grain crop,” Streit Krug said. “So that would be something like perennial wheat … a really important crop here in Kansas.”
And a drought-resistant version of the most Kansas of crops, the sunflower.
“As Kansas becomes drier in certain places, and as the Ogallala (aquifer) continues to disappear, it's crops like this that may be able to grow without supplemental irrigation,” Crews said.
You don’t need to wait until the Prairie Festival to visit the Land Institute. It welcomes visitors throughout the year.
But if you want to meet an eclectic mix of researchers, artists and growers, eat some pretty amazing pancakes, try your hand at square dancing and learn something along the way, then the Prairie Festival could be for you.