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Perennial Wheat | New World Seeds & Tubers

Wicked bad critters

Tom and I went down to the farm on Sunday to get a few odds and ends taken care of.

The bad news is that every last red tomato that was ripe has been eaten by the deer. We didn’t notice any deer predation last year so we didn’t think about it. Some people claim that non-primate mammals can’t see colors, but I know they do have cones in their retinas, just not as many as we have. I would guess they have some vague awareness of colors.

Luckily a weirdly high fraction of Tom’s tomatoes ripen in colors other than tomato-red. They didn’t touch the “blue” (there we go again) tomatoes–some of which are just about Nightshade black! In fact Tom wondered if the black-berried Nightshades growing very nearby spooked the deer away from the matching tomatoes.

Speaking of which, one of the “blues” looks almost sinister with red hues visible through the almost black skin for a Halloween horror effect, while several others are approaching inky black–well beyond the more typical eggplant purple. Tom has been trying to get them more and more and more saturated. I assume it’s still only skin deep but one of these days someone’s going to figure out how to make the color bleed into the flesh. Some tomatoes–the so-called “blacks”–already have sooty hues in the flesh.

Green-when-ripes did not attract as much attention as the reds but we are worried as the deer are clearly watching the fruit carefully.

Thankfully the deer have not touched most of the perennial grain. We had a fairly good harvest of perennial wheat, a few perennial xTriticale, and a few perennial rye.

Speaking of which, I’ll be announcing a sale of perennial cereals shortly for folks who, like us, plant hardy cereals in the autumn. Sorry, no pre-announcement sales; it would be impossible for me to reply to the flood of emails, and it might result in some hurt feelings from folks who try to order and it’s already sold out. The only way to buy will be through an automated system that I will set up once the seed is ready.

This will be the only sales of perennial cereals until next Autumn; it was a serendipitous harvest of some varieties that have been very well-selected during a multi-year program for longevity and performance. Everything else is getting replanted to build up our supplies so that we can get it to our customers in useful quantities as fast as possible. Perennial grains were never common and we had to start from the equivalent of thimble-fulls of seed.

If you want to hear about the sale as quickly as possible, sign up for our email list on the form on the rightmost sidebar if you haven’t already. I will also announce via a post on this blog, which is eventually forwarded to our Facebook fanpage, which hopefully you’re subscribed to if you use Facebook. I expect this grain to sell out quickly as it has been mostly off-the-market for several years now since Peters Seed and Research went out of business.

All proceeds benefit Tim Peters. For that reason, and because it’s going to sell out anyway, I might ask a higher price than normally we would. We think it’s worth it to have something that is rare and getting more so all the time; the projects that developed perennial grains tend to have funding for a limited time and then they run out. When a few more projects run out of funding, that’s probably it for the foreseeable future, as projects like these have low priority during sovereign debt crises.

In general there has been a problem funding open-source crop development projects, which unfortunately has adversely impacted all the independent breeders we are aware of. It’s a problem a solution to which we’ve been brainstorming for a while now. We think part of the solution is critical mass and efficiency of scale, so if you’re an independent plant breeder who wants to join us, contact us.

I’m threshing the wheat right now. Tom has the rye.

Speaking of perennial cereals, Tom’s got another idea regarding what some people might do with them: he suggests experimenting to see if animals could graze on them late in the year, then let it be to grow out early in the year to bear a crop.

That would probably only work in some climates, which brings up an issue we don’t have an answer for: we don’t know just how coldhardy these perennials are. We think one possible vulnerability is that of seedlings dying from late freezes after warm late winter or early spring weather.

I suppose it’s worth a quick report on some other grains:

The early white Sorghum is doing OK and the bird-resistant Sorghum is just about to bloom except for one oddly precocious plant–meaning the latter will be nip and tuck to get much to ripen. If we get any we’re doing OK; it was a year of unfavorable weather for us. The corn is having a hard time of it too.

Hmm, one nice thing about Sorghum is it is fairly deer-resistant. When stressed, the plants produce Prussic Acid (read that: cyanide). If they nip at it enough they’ll wish they hadn’t.

Quinoa ‘Faro’ is drying down. We harvested a few plants and threshed out a small amount of grain to see how they were doing. It should be fully dry in a week, and other quinoas should be following along shortly thereafter.

Productivity per plant is quite modest…but…most of them are growing in a field with very thin soil and NO irrigation. A few plants growing on richer, moister bottom-ground have much heavier heads (maybe even a little too heavy! Hope they don’t lodge).

We’ll have enough for some modest spring sales; the rest will go to expanding our production as it looks like at least some varieties of quinoa are well-adapted here. What we’ll probably do is plant some on the bottom-ground, and some up on the higher ground with thin soil too just to make use of what would otherwise be wasted ground aside from quinoa and autumn-sown grains. The soil on the upper ground is too thin and too dry for anything else.

Which goes to show you that there’s hope for ground that’s unsuitable for most crops but might be suitable for some. Ironically, some of the most fundamental staple crops can grow were a lot of more insubstantial crops can’t.

PS: Ha ha, the Adsense ad that came up when I reviewed this post was an ad for a Ford pickup to take deer hunting!

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Here are some heads of “perennial wheat”. As you can see, they don’t look like typical heads of wheat; they’re more elongated. That’s because “perennial wheat” has entire chromosomes from Thinopyrum intermedium, aka “intermediate wheatgrass”. One of the chromosomes from Thinopyrum contains the instructions for being perennial.

These hybrids have existed for a long time. Some of the oldest date back to circa the 1920s in the Soviet Union. The goal was actually more along the lines of producing a wheat-like grain with much higher protein content. Since Thinopyrum (formerly “Agropyrum”–you can find older hybrids listed as “xAgrotriticum”) is perennial, some, but not all, of the hybrids end up perennial.

Have you ever wondered why the vast majority of human cereals are annuals, not perennials? Even the ones with some propensity to be perennial (eg Rice and Sorghum) are grown exclusively as annuals on a commercial basis.

There are probably several reasons. Tom pointed out to me that annuals force the issue of raising a new generation every year. That speeds up breeding and selection versus perennials that would not be replaced every year. Of course that benefit would occur to a plant-breeder.

Annuals also tend to have more total seed, as they must produce seed or die out. Perennials have less at stake, plus they have to save some energy for their persistent crowns. So, humans got more food from annuals.

Herbaceous perennial food crops are surprisingly rare, but it turns out that for their own part they have some advantages of their own:

  • They tend to have much deeper roots. They can pull water and minerals up from greater depths, thereby requiring less fertilization and irrigation. Well, they have to be good at finding minerals, because they sit in place for years on end.
  • They tend to be more disease-resistant. Have to; disease builds up from growing in the same spot year after year.
  • They tend to be more reliable, because they don’t undergo the vulnerable seedling stage every year. Conceivably you could have a system where only a fraction of them are being replanted from seed every year. Weather or predatory disasters that tend to kill seedlings are less likely to totally destroy well-established plants.

Here is a summary of the benefits and drawbacks of perennial cereals:

Benefits

  • More reliable
  • Deeper roots
  • More resistant to disease
  • Spares fuel and equipment needed for plowing
  • Live plants are a backup to seed in storage.

Drawbacks

  • Lower yields
  • At least current versions of perennial wheat probably too soft for bread
  • Still experimental…no proven track record…management of perennial grains not a well-defined art

For better or worse, it doesn’t work in annual rotation schemes, but I couldn’t figure out if that was a benefit or a drawback. Probably both.

My idea is to use it on a small scale on odd scraps of land as a back-up food source. You don’t get as much food per unit land, but neither do you have to invest as much effort maintaining it. Let’s say one year you have heavy rains during planting season. That would sabotage your annual grain production but the perennials would shrug it off. Or, what if a mold got into your carefully-stored seed? Or maybe it’s just getting old, because you haven’t been able to plant it. Perennial crops give you a back-up in the field.

At least for now, it probably works better on a small scale than a large scale. That way if unforeseen challenges turn it into a fiasco, it’s a small problem not a big one. This is one situation where small-scale grain production makes more sense than large-scale.

That’s probably the reason that perennial grain projects get funded for a while and then run out of money. There does not seem to be a lot of commercial interest in perennial grains. The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, seems to be one of the few institutions working on perennial grains long-term. We’ll continue working on them too, on a small scale.

We’ve got a small production going of perennial grains. This autumn we have plans to expand it to at least a few acres. There’s still a lot of work to do to make that happen, and that’s just the planting. The grains themselves will need more breeding and selection.

In addition to wheat, we’ve got perennial versions of rye and sorghum. Rye and sorghum are relatively easier to perennialize than wheat, because they’ve got perennial relations in the same genus. They need some work too, but they’re already useable. The rye could be porridge or rye flour for bread, and the sorghum is probably chicken-food, or if you’re ambitious you can make sorghum beer out of it. Eventually we might have a grain sorghum (“milo”) that is palatable to humans and perennial too.

It’s worth mentioning that rice could be bred for perenniality, by selecting occasional perennial plants. I don’t know what the consequences of perennial rice would be for disease and pest issues. Probably another crop for small-scale production only. We’re unlikely to be the ones to help develop it, because we’re too far north for rice to thrive.

What do you think about perennial grains? How would you use them?

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Some of you might know about Peters Seed and Research. It was a small cropseed company run by Tim Peters and eventually his associate, Dave Woods.

It sold a variety of fruits and vegetables, but its primary claim to fame were a few of its specialties. It was probably the most accessible source of perennial grains in the USA if not the world. Perennial grains (typically, wheat) also show up from time to time in government crop-breeding programs, but Tim was one of the few crop variety breeders who really took them seriously and tried to develop practical crops out of them.

What we have found is that perennial grains are useful in situations where you can just let them grow, and harvest them opportunistically. They tend to perform better than annual grains in harsh-weather years like this one for us.

Tim also specialized in Cucurbits and leafy greens, and he had several early-ripening tomatoes suitable for the Pacific Northwest, where tomatoes can be a challenge to ripen especially in La NiƱa years.

He also had a few odds and ends worthy of Luther Burbank, but without the controversial hype. For example, “Garden Huckleberries”–that is, edible Nightshades used as substitutes for blueberries–that are bigger and sweeter than normal.

That was what was available to the public. What was still in development was tantalizing in a weirdly wonderful way. Imagine for example Hibiscus bred to combine cold-hardiness, palatable leaves, EDIBLE PODS (like Okra or “tropical cranberries”), PLUS showy, edible flowers that can be used to make smoothies.

The trick of course would be to combine traits of already-existing species of Hibiscus and related genera. That was one of Tim’s specialties, including seemingly-impossible wide crosses.

He also did work on perennial eggplants and cucurbits, and took an interest in Passionfruit.

Tim was motivated to eventually bring this stuff to market.

Eric Toensmeyer’s book Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles (one of those “fun” books that keeps you up at night thinking of possibilities)
resulted in a sudden awareness of Tim Peter’s work. Unfortunately, it was too late; the company was already on its last legs. Now if you look up Peters Seed and Research on the internet, all you’ll find is a lot of inquiries regarding where to find this or that variety, or what happened to the company and would it be possible to buy his varieties from another source.

Tom and I rescued several of them. They were exceedingly hard to find. A few may have gone extinct. Too bad.

What if a small miracle happened, and some of his best varieties were suddenly available again?

It could happen. Stay tuned. Smiley

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