The Search For Perennial Wheat

UPDATE (04 Feburary 2012): I keep looking for more information every year on this topic, and while I do not have anything growing this year other than about an acre of winter wheat in a south field, this is a fascinating picture of the actual root system of perennial wheat.

There’s more to this than just a freaky looking plant dreadlock. That root system represents something far bigger than itself: Soil health. Perennial plants build soil and protect against erosion in ways annual plants and their skimpy root structures simply cannot. It’s why, since large-scale corn farming replaced perennial prairie, Iowa has lost some 8 vertical inches of precious topsoil. Glover’s argument: To protect our farming resources for future generations we need to pay more attention to the potential benefits of perennial crops.

Though it was mentioned below that crop yields may indeed decrease due to the perennial nature of wheat, that’s a constant tradeoff.  If healthy soil is a long-term goal, perennial wheat — or even a variety that lasts 5-7 years — could be the key to restoring the health of soil damaged by tobacco, corn, or other nutrient-depleting agriculture… which is probably more accurately termed mining than agriculture, but I digress…

Your lawn grows every year. You mow it, but it keeps coming back. If you allow it to grow long enough, it will bolt to seed, forming a perfect round head of little grass seedlings to propagate itself.

In contrast, wheat farmers have to replant every year. New seed is broadcasted, fertilized, tended, grown, and ultimately reaped and harvested. A certain amount is set aside for seed for the next year, and the cycle continues.

Why can’t wheat be like grass?

Perennial wheat is the cold fusion of agriculture. Not only is it better for the soil and the environment, it prevents runoff and theoretically provides a logical boost in grain production yields. Moreover, you don’t have to replant annually — which means you get a naturally recurring food source that can be cultivated every single year.

So how close are we?

A new variety of crop called “perennial wheat” has been in the process of development for many years. Researchers have reached a hopeful stage and perennial wheat may be ready for cultivation soon. Unlike the annual varieties of wheat, which can give yield only for one year, the perennial wheat can grow annual crop successively for about 7 years. Researchers at the Michigan State University have been at the work for several years now and they are now hopeful about their success.

So how are we going about this research?  Surprisingly, it’s an entirely organic approach.  Some perennials have been found to last as long as 7 years and perhaps more, and the benefits not only to the ecosystem but as a reliable food source are literally a 10,000 year leap in food:

Perennial grains, say the authors, have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation. Their larger roots, which can reach 10 to 12 feet down, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide, key features in less developed regions.

By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as perennial crops and 35 times as much nitrate, a valuable plant nutrient that can migrate from fields to pollute drinking water and create “dead zones” in surface waters.

“Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet,” said Reganold.

So where can you get this awesome stuff for your home garden?  That depends…

Michigan State is currently having a great deal of success with perennial wheats, and is on the verge of giving samples out to organic farmers to attempt to identify the best strains of organically-produced perennial wheat.  Heck — even Nazis are interested (not to point you in that direction… but the information on perennial wheat is truly that scarce).  Washington State is working on a series of strains as well:

…but for the local organic gardener, it seems as if you’ve really got to look.  These guys didn’t have any luck.  Nor did these guys.  I haven’t even considered calling the extension office at Virginia Tech just yet, but one has to imagine that it would not be terribly difficult to find something.

Of course, there are hazards, but these are typical with many strains of any plant without much variety.  There’s always the possibility that, should an organic strain be perfected, one of the larger commercial agricultural firms could very well produce a genetically modified version of the strain… which naturally has pitfalls of its own.

One imagines that many thousands of years ago, wheat was perennial in its original state before humans found various strains that were higher yield, but required replanting.  Efforts such as these for renewable and sustainable agriculture are great stuff, and should be heartily encouraged.

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