Journal of Writing & Environment

Web Rove: Prairie Fest

by Jess Eller

Last month, I had the great pleasure of attending the “intellectual hootenanny” that is the Prairie Festival. Now in its 36th year, this was my first attending.

Situated on the outskirts of Salina, Kansas, the Prairie Fest is a weekend gathering hosted by the Land Institute, a research facility committed to creating better agricultural practices through science. Prairie Fest is the one time a year the science facility turns into a gathering of disciplines inviting speakers as varied as Russian history to philosophy to mathematics.

This is the only institute that Wendell Berry, farmer and renowned environmental author, endorses, and it’s soon obvious why. He and his long-time friend and the Land Institute co-founder Wes Jackson’s ideologies and philosophies — essentially how to be a better citizen on this Earth through responsible land use — are the underpinning of the festival and its lectures. The two are also cult icons here, with speakers namedropping Berry or kidding around with Jackson who was front and center the entire weekend.

Berry was not in attendance this year (gossip was that with his age, the previous year’s Fest was most likely his last), but Jackson was front and center the entirety of the event. The speakers he chose gave talks that were varied and interesting with subjects ranging from the creation of national parks in South America to the Hebrew bible’s multiple uses of the word land.

The weekend was everything you could imagine with a name like Prairie Fest. Festival-goers camped in a former cow pasture, tents pitched strategically between cow patties. The lectures were held in a dirt-floored barn; there was electricity but no air conditioning. In the morning was sunrise yoga or a guided walk through the prairie. And at night, we were fed bison stew made by sustainable chef-to-the-celebrities Donna Prizgintas while serenaded by the Zen Cowboy himself, Chuck Pyle.

Our Iowa State University van pulling out of the Land Institute’s drive on Sunday was bittersweet. The idea of a bed and shower were fantastic, but, like a perennial, I knew it would be another year before Prairie Fest flowered again. In the interim though, here are some links that should keep us all inspired until next year’s Fest:

The other 363 days when the Fest is not in session, the Land Institute is a research facility using science and agriculture to inform research on perennial crops. Their mission is a lofty one, but their studies are advancing a field that could revolutionize farming globally.

Prairie Fest and the Land Institute wouldn’t even be in existence if not for Wes Jackson. This article in The Atlantic is a snapshot of his mission and personality. Jackson would be hard to capture on page, but journalist Emily Hazzard comes close.

Bob Jensen’s talk “We Are All Apocalyptic Now” was one of the festival highlights for many. Jensen, a former “hope monger” offered a very real, very (surprisingly) funny look at where we are headed.

Chef Donna Prizgintas co-hosts a radio show on KHOI in Ames, Iowa. Unfortunately the recipe for her amazing bison stew isn’t listed but several others are. If they’re anything like her stew, expect to be amazed.

And last, but certainly not least, is the talented Chuck Pyle. The best part about Chuck: his sense of humor. He strums, he sings, and he jokes. My favorite of his set went something like this:

Chuck’s friend: Chuck, I’m getting married, and you’ve gotta play in my wedding.

Chuck: Well, okay. Where’s it at?

Chuck’s friend: We’re getting hitched in Central America.

Chuck: …Iowa?