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What would you do with perennial grains? | New World Seeds & Tubers

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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5 Responses to “What would you do with perennial grains?”

    • Thanks, Mike, I appreciate the reference. It’s interesting to hear about these kinds of projects.

      I couldn’t find anything linked–the comment-processing software might have “eaten” it to prevent visitors from embedding potentially hazardous HTML.

      But I looked up “Northern Rice Project” and read about some folks named Linda and Takeshi Akaogi who are growing a rice paddy in Vermont. The article I read confirmed my fears. They think they are on the very edge, and they had to grow from transplants. I’ve heard of other people doing the same thing. Sounds like a lot of work and some risk. If it weren’t for the heat-degree requirements of rice, it would be a shoe-in for its tolerance of damp growing conditions such as are ubiquitous here.

      • It seems like if they can get rice to grow in Hokkaido, why not Vermont or the PNW? It only averages low 70s in the summers there, and is a lot less humid that the rest of Japan.

        http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20061222f2.html

        (if link doesn’t work, just google “hokkaido rice”, it’s one of the first links to pop up)

        Noelle

        • Thanks, Noelle. Now that Fukushima has contaminated some of their best growing space I would not be surprised if they are forced to shift much of their production north.

          I think technically it IS possible to grow rice here IF you’re willing to accommodate it. I keep hearing stories about people starting it in a greenhouse and transferring it outdoors when the weather warms up. I’d like to see some in person some time, and talk to the growers about their experience.

          I think there is always a need for some domestic production of easy-to-digest, low-allergic grains such as rice, for people who have sensitivities to gluten or avenin.

  1. Our climate seems ideally suited for oats – mild, damp etc. I’m not aware of any work being done on perennial oats, although some work was done in 1980s at the then Welsh Plant Breeding Station IIR using A. macrostachya. My dream would be a reliably perennial naked seeded oat.

    Has any work been done on breeding perennial wild rice (Zizania)? I know that Z. latifolia is a perennial and considerably hardier than Oryza. Too cool here for it to flower well as far as I’m aware.

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