Wes Jackson’s drive to be physically and intellectually engaged with the world is reaping agricultural breakthroughs once thought impossible.

“My motto has been: If you’re working on something you can finish in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough,” said the founder and president emeritus of The Land Institute near Salina.

Jackson, who grew up on a Kansas farm, is ahead of schedule in his quest to create sustainable grains that can endure season after season. His vision has yielded Kernza, the first new grain to be developed in 4,200 years. (That distinction could be disputed, depending on whether commercial crops are defined to include triticale, a hybrid between wheat and rye.) Kernza is grown in various locations throughout the world, predominantly in North America and Europe.

Kernza is being grown experimentally on five of the seven continents with limited commercial availability, including use in Long Root Ale sold by Patagonia.

Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Kansas Wesleyan University, a master’s degree in botany from the University of Kansas and a doctorate in genetics from North Carolina State University. He is the author of numerous books and has won countless accolades, including the Pew Conservation Scholar in 1990, MacArthur Fellow in 1992 and Right Livelihood Award in 2000.

“Wes is an incredibly distinctive figure,” said Robert Jensen, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas in Austin, who is working with a California film production company on a documentary about Jackson.

“It’s not just the technical accomplishments of The Land Institute. It’s the way Wes sees the world that’s important,” Jensen said, noting Jackson’s ecological perspective that melds science, rural life, arts and humanities.