Name, Place, and Purpose for a Perennial Grain and Forage Crop of the Coastal Northwest

By Dana Christel

Wheat may be one of the first crops that comes to mind when the state of Washington is mentioned.  I can picture rolling hills covered in swaying waves of golden wheat seed heads. I think dry, I think wide open spaces, I think of a large combine making its way across the plains.  Of course, the state as a whole represents a myriad of agricultural systems due to diverse geography and varied microclimates, so the image described probably best represents the eastern part of the state. However, even on the western parts of Washington there have been efforts to breed wheat that thrives in a different environment and meets the needs of farmers in that region.  Dr. Stephen Jones, wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at the Mount Vernon Research Center, has been working to develop regionally relevant varieties of grains such as oats, barley and wheat since 2008.  Also among those projects is developing a perennial grain and forage crop from wheat, a breeding effort that began back in the 1990s at the Pullman campus of Washington State University on the east side.  When Jones made the move to the other side of the mountains in 2008, the perennial project was put on the back-burner. That is until Colin Curwen-McAdams joined Jones’s team as a Ph.D. student to revitalize perennial grain breeding efforts and focus them on the coastal Northwest, between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Tritipyrum up close at the Mount Vernon Research Center  in Washington- a cross between Thinopyrum ponticum and Triticum aestivum. Photo credit: Colin Curwen-McAdams

 

A Regional Perennial Grain and Forage Crop

Early efforts in perennial grain breeding at Pullman included planting out different germplasm from collections all over the country and making crosses between wheat and related species.  Curwen-McAdams planted a little bit of everything Dr. Jones’ program had developed over the last 20 years and started making new crosses of wheat and wheatgrass species adapted to the western part of the state.  Thus began the journey of breeding a perennial grain and forage crop for this coastal region.  There are different pest and disease problems for grains here. Nestled against the Puget Sound, crops in this region experience moderate winters and summers with abundant moisture, an environment very different from eastern Washington and most places inland.

To my surprise, despite these moderate winters, one of the biggest challenges Curwen-McAdams has experienced is in getting the plants to survive through the winter.  “The interesting part is the same lines that I had die on me here have done alright in Pullman where it can get much colder and they get snow regularly.  So it’s not just related to temperature.” Curwen-McAdams explains that this region gets abundant moisture through the fall so the plant keeps growing and wants to flower.  But then the cold comes along and the very tender flowers die from the cold.  In contrast to the other side of the mountains, “In Pullman there’s not a lot of moisture, so the plant kind of sits there and gets covered in snow, and by the time everything wakes up in the spring, it ends up being okay.  So it’s really about how the plant prepares itself for what’s next.” Colin’s theory is that since a lot of the materials have been selected for over 20 years in eastern Washington, they’ve become synchronized to that environment. “So that’s where the regional aspect of plant breeding comes in,” Curwen-McAdams points out, “changes in latitude, changes in temperature, changes in agricultural system, all of that will change what that crop needs to do for the system and what the plant needs to do to survive. “

A Balancing Act

Other benefits of regionally based plant breeding are that researchers can base their efforts on the needs of farmers of that region.  Curwen-McAdams says that in their valley approximately 80 different crop types are grown in rotation, and the primary reasons farmers grow grain there is to break up pest and disease cycles while returning organic matter to the soil.  “They’re not really growing grain as their primary crop.  They’re definitely not growing grain to make a profit…So how can we make that grain crop more beneficial to the overall rotation?” Curwen-McAdams says that by adding organic matter with a crop with deeper roots that a farmer doesn’t have to till for a few years in between could increase yields of, say, potatoes that follow it. “So it’s a different target to hit than replacing grain where grain is grown.  And I think that’s something important to point out.”

“If I were to use materials that do well here [right away] as opposed to bringing things from somewhere else, [a shorter timeline] could maybe work, if the environments are similar enough, but as a plant breeder you don’t expect to get lucky like that.  You expect to have to bring in interesting components and then reassemble them through the breeding process.”

When asked about the attitudes of area farmers that are interested in perennial grain crops Curwen-McAdams says they are “generally interested and cautiously optimistic”.  Growers have shown a lot of interest in a crop that can be used as both grain and forage, but he emphasizes the importance to not over promise this idea to farmers; “With perennial grain development there’s a constant struggle between over promising and letting people down and then having people stop caring because you can’t produce something on a timescale that they’re familiar with.” Curwen-McAdams reasons that an annual wheat variety from a cross to a release might take 8-10 years, and a lot of producers have a similar expectation for perennial grains.  However, Curwen-McAdams and other perennial grains breeders know that following a timeline like that isn’t all that feasible. “If I were to use materials that do well here [right away] as opposed to bringing things from somewhere else, that could maybe work, if the environments are similar enough, but as a plant breeder you don’t expect to get lucky like that.  You expect to have to bring in interesting components and then reassemble them through the breeding process,” he says.  The goal of their program has been to add a genome onto bread wheat through cross pollination and selection and at this point they have some advanced materials that are stable, which to my limited understanding of plant breeding, is a great success in the world of perennial grains.  Materials that are ready to be adopted by farmers is still several years down the line as of now, but Curwen-McAdams remains hopeful, “The message to me is there’s a tremendous potential and in order to realize that potential we need breeding efforts, we need to have conversations with growers to understand what the crop actually needs to do in their system, and then we need those conversations to expand beyond that to the people who are actually going to use that grain in order to make sure that we [are on target].”

Young Tritipyrum plants. Photo credit: Colin Curwen-McAdams.

Shifting Thinking

Another facet of sustaining the interest, is getting the potential users of perennial grain like bakers, maltsters, and brewers, and the consumers of these potential products, to think of the crop in a different way than they think of wheat.  “Trying to get a hybrid is really about trying to capture a lot of those qualities that we like from wheat in the new crop and then hopefully being able to give it a name and a place so that it doesn’t have to be defined as wheat, because if it has to be defined as wheat, it has to do exactly what wheat does and be perennial. That’s really a challenge.”

Curwen-McAdams points out Triticale, the product of crossing rye with wheat, as an example.  It’s given its own name, isn’t expected to fully behave like wheat or rye, and with that has a different place in the market.  Curwen-McAdams refers to the purple and blue spring wheat breeding, another project he works on, to further explain, “The only market classes for wheat now are red and white. By breeding something that is outside market classification you immediately remove any sort of potential market for it and you also remove any pricing structure that’s been placed.  With that there’s a potential to redefine what the price of that grain is based on what the farmer needs from it and what it can do for the community.” I found this a very interesting point made for developing a crop for a specific area, and something to certainly keep in mind as breeders continue to make advancements on perennial grains.

Photo credit: Colin Curwen-McAdams

What Should We Name It?

Naming a new crop is not only important in the realm of marketing and bringing consumers on board, it’s also important for scientists to effectively communicate their progress to one another.  Curwen-McAdams, Jones and several other scientists just published an article in Journal of Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution suggesting the nomenclature for one of the stable lines they’ve developed, a cross of Thinopyrum ponticum and Triticum aestivum, as ×Tritipyrum aaseae after Dr. Hannah Aase who contributed to early efforts working with these hybrids.  “At this point it is its own thing separate from its two parents,” said Curwen-McAdams.

“Names are important. They help us organize information and influence how we think about the world. “

He expressed his frustration in talking to other researchers because there was no more specific way they could refer to this advanced material except to call it ‘perennial wheat’. Washington State University had put out a press release announcing the article’s release, generating excitement among several local news sources.  The message may have gotten blurred, as stories portrayed the Mount Vernon group as discovering perennial wheat, rather than naming a new hybrid species.  As of now, Curwen-McAdams hasn’t gotten a lot of feedback from scientists in the perennial grain community yet, but he’ll continue to use the proposed naming structure as a foundation.  He hopes that he’s started a conversation and brought attention to this important component of developing a new crop, “Names are important,” he says “They help us organize information and influence how we think about the world.  The name doesn’t define the crop, but hopefully having one opens the space for people to collaborate in doing so.”

The article is open access at SpringerLink.  Click here to read it.

If you have ideas to share with Colin about perennial grain nomenclature or other questions about breeding projects at Mount Vernon Research Center you can contact him at: c.curwenmcadams@wsu.edu

 

Agricultural Scientist Reflects on 20 Years of Perennial Grains Work

By Dana Christel

Jerry Glover, Senior Sustainable Agriculture Advisor for the United States Agency for International Development, has been an important figure in perennial grains research. He was recognized as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2010 for his work on soil health and perennial grass systems at The Land Institute.  He has been an author of several significant papers on perennial agriculture, and worked to display perennial root systems at the United States Botanic Garden.  Today he continues to be influential in communicating the benefits of perennial systems and promoting perennial crops in agriculture in the developing world.  I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Glover over a warm cup of tea on a snowy day in Michigan and ask about his work over the past 20 years.  Glover shared his lightbulb moment of inspiration, tactics he uses to engage audiences in the topic of soil health, and his thoughts on perennial grain Kernza®, recently introduced to food markets by The Land Institute.


Q: Can you walk me through the history of your involvement in perennial grains work? Why did you choose to work with perennial grains?
A: I had one of those Eureka moments. I was in Kansas in 1996 doing research comparing soil quality between organic and conventional farming systems.  I was seeing differences between those two types of systems, but I wasn’t really impressed with the differences I was seeing.  So then I wondered, what does soil quality look like under natural grassland ecosystems? Luckily, I was able to find a relatively intact prairie meadow with the same soil type as the farms I was studying. I was looking at soil aggregate stability, soil C, N, and P levels, among other things and found that the meadow had much greater soil quality, especially organic matter than the two farming systems I studied.  I found out that a farmer had been haying this meadow for a while.  I started doing some back of the envelope calculations while I was in the field to figure out the nutrients taken off in the hay, and it was then that I had this sort of epiphany: perennial grass systems can support similar nutrient yields as annual agriculture, but without all the depletion of soil organic matter and soil quality. 

So I went back to Washington to finish my Ph.D. and then I returned to The Land Institute to set up some more rigorous studies.  I worked with an interdisciplinary team of ecologists and soil biologists and we studied above ground food webs of insects, looked at nematode populations and other chemical, biological and physical soil properties of perennial grass systems.  We found that these systems can sustain harvests of similar levels of N, P, and K as annual wheat systems.  We found that with no N fertilizer inputs that N was still getting into the soil.  Now part of this has to do with legumes being present in some of those ecosystems but I credit biological N fixation in and around the perennial grass roots to be a big part of soil N in natural grassland soils.  So I got really excited about everything we were finding, but you can’t really eat hay. So how do we emulate this in a viable way in our agricultural systems? And I thought perennial grain crops were a remarkably feasible and revolutionary way to do so. 

Q: In what capacity are you working with perennial grains now?
A: In my work now I deal with a wider variety of farming systems and it’s a much wider scope dealing with more socio-cultural aspects.  Though the geographic and thematic scope of my work has expanded I still include and talk about perennial grain crops a lot in my work. 

Q: There’s a popular picture of you with roots that shows up in a lot of articles about perennial grains and I notice in many of your talks that you bring a perennial grass with long roots to show to your audience.  How has this imagery helped influence, educate and inspire people?
A: When people see perennial grain crops growing above ground next to annual crops, they look pretty similar and there’s little indication of the differences in the benefits or services they provide.  But when you look below ground it’s easy to see those differences.  I used to try to explain the benefits by talking about the good things perennials do for soil, but this does not capture people’s imaginations.  It bores people.  But when you show the roots it inspires people to what the profound implications of those roots are below ground. 

Using the roots as a prop is a tool to sustain people’s interest but transfer their attention to the more important topic of soil.  Showing the roots seems to change the nature of questions from an audience. Instead of asking big picture questions about how perennial grains can fix societal problems, they start to ask more questions about how the roots absorb nutrients or retain water.  Those are the things I want to talk about.

Q: What’s the biggest barrier in perennial grains work?
A: Plant breeding.  Perennial grains can’t catch on in countries because they don’t really exist yet in viable forms that can compete with annual grain crops.  I see big potential in some perennial legumes in the immediate future in developing countries, such as those we work with in Africa, but even there, varieties need to be improved to be more widely used and with better effect. 

Q: Let’s talk about Kernza® for a little bit. Kernza® has been one of the most promising perennial crops coming out of The Land Institute.  It seems though, that there might be a lot of management required to maintain grain yields over time. Do you think that the management needs would negate the benefits of growing a perennial crop?
A: Disturbance might make a system more productive.  Well established perennial grass systems aren’t cycling a lot of nutrients.  Using some kind of disturbance, such as grazing or rotations, might keep perennial systems in what ecologists have called a mid-successional state so that nutrients are more actively cycling might be the best thing.  I think Tim Crews at The Land Institute is looking at how disturbance can play a role in sustaining productivity. So even if we would have fields of Kernza® that measure 25% less in soil quality than prairie, that is still remarkably better than annual wheat fields. 

But, yield is no small concern.  We don’t want to have to use twice as much cropland to grow the same amount of grain.

Q: Do you think that Kernza® is best suited for a particular region or farming system?
A: What is exciting about perennial grains and Kernza® is that we are adding to the toolbox of options for farmers.  By providing one more economically viable option for a crop to grow, you’re automatically increasing diversity.  I think it will be interesting to see how farmers use it in their systems.  I could see farmers with livestock getting excited about it, using it in rotations easily and alleviating weed pressure and potentially breaking disease cycles. These multi-purpose options will be important in places where there are land constraints.  But here in the U.S. there isn’t really a land constraint so I see farmers using them in rotations. 

There’s also going to be some differences in the way farmers understand this new crop depending on the region.  Here in the upper Midwest and in dairy country I think farmers will see the value in having perennials because they have animals.  They’re more used to growing perennials for forage and they’ll see the inherent benefit of having something that is dual purpose for grain and forage.  Farmers on the prairie might not grasp that as well, but they do understand the cost of planting, fertilizing and managing weeds every year. So if they can see that fewer inputs are required with growing something like Kernza then it will be more attractive to them.  For example, there’s a study from Australia showing that the yield of certain perennial crops only has to be 60% of annual crops to be economically viable since there is reduced inputs.  

Q: It seems like a lot of scientists currently working on Kernza and other perennial crops were part of the Land Institute Graduate Fellowship Program.  How do you think that has contributed to success?
A: I think that the graduate research fellowship was an important catalyst for expanding perennial grains research in the U.S. and throughout the world.  Without that effort I think that the perennial grains community would be a lot smaller, and given the small amount of money allocated for it each year, I think they got a lot of return on it.  I thought it was very successful.  

Q: What does the future of perennial grains work look like?
A: I see two trajectories.  Expansion in niche markets in the Western world like with Kernza in things like beer and multi-grain bread as a way to increase awareness and show potential is one way.  In places like the U.S. it’ll be only after a significant period of time, due to the time it takes for breeding, for it to expand more widely. Also U.S. agriculture has such high production levels already, so perennial grains have higher yields to compete with here.  But perhaps more significant is development and expansion in the developing world where people are resource poor and food insecure.  These places have the most to gain and would see those gains more immediately.