Unconventional Farmers: Perennial Grains

Courtesy of the Land Institute

Over the past six months, farmers in the Midwest and Plains states have been contending with one weather disaster after another: floods, drought, freeze—you name it. I’ve written that we’d be wise to diversify our grain growing in order to create a resilience that can stand up to these extremes, especially given that continued climate change will likely bring more of them. Along these lines, farmer-researchers at The Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, are working on a revolutionary solution: perennial grains.

The vast majority of field crops today are annuals, meaning they complete their growing cycle in one year, then are plowed up and replanted the following year. Perennial plants, on the other hand, stay in the ground and produce a crop year after year. As a result, they are more resilient. Their value is not yield size but yield stability, meaning they can withstand environmental extremes such as we saw this spring and still produce a decent crop. (Plus, those root systems boost carbon sequestration, which may help mitigate the extremes in the first place.)

Currently the Land Institute is perennializing wheat, sunflowers and sorghum, and working with researchers in China to develop perennial rice. (On the to-do list are corn and legumes.) The benefits of these perennial grain crops would be tremendous. To begin with, simply not tilling the land each year to prepare for an annual planting greatly reduces soil erosion. This benefit is already seen in ordinary wheat grown in a “no-till” system, in which seed is simply planted over the remains of the previous year’s crop. But while the no-till wheat system is highly dependent on herbicides, perennials are able to compete against annual weeds. In many of the Land Institute’s trial fields, there are virtually no weeds—and thus no need for herbicides.

Another bonus: The perennials are more efficient when it comes to accessing and using soil nutrients, which means less, if any, chemical fertilizer, and consequently little-to-no run-off into waterways.

Monarch butterfly on perennial sunflower. (Courtesy of The Land Institute)

Wildlife certainly benefit from this reduction in agricultural chemical use, but perhaps even more valuable is the habitat that perennial crops offer them. Annual crops normally leave the ground bare for much of the year; for instance, where spring wheat is planted, a field will likely be bare for nine months of twelve. By contrast, perennial crops offer continual plant cover, something that’s especially valuable for the grassland birds whose native habitat has been lost to annual cropland. Perennials also provide habitat of a sort underground: Their extensive, lasting roots systems can invite and help support a diverse community of microorganisms, which in turn contribute to soil health.

If these perennial crops sound like perfection, their one flaw may be that they take an awfully long time to perfect—decades, at least. Thankfully, the farmer-researchers at the Land Institute are hard at work. You can learn more here: www.landinstitute.org.

Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of the recent Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint).

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”