Perennials as a tool to combat climate change

As we watched the first snow of the year quickly melt away on a balmy 40 degree December day here in Michigan, you might be filled with the urge to reminisce about the winters of your younger years.  “I remember when I went trick-or-treating in a snow storm at the end of October!” Or, “I remember there was always snow on the ground for the opening day of gun season!”  The climate is changing and here in the Upper Midwest a delay in the first familiar snowfall  is one result of this, others include drought and flood.  Parts of the state of Michigan were declared to be in a state of drought this past summer, having detrimental effects on yields of certain crops. States around the country share similar sentiments. As climate change continues to threaten agriculture nationally and globally, scientists have identified farming practices that might lessen the blow of these extreme weather events, allowing the farmer to better adapt to the changes. A conversion of annual crops to perennials, which more closely align with natural systems, has been recognized and discussed as one possible solution to climate change not only in scientific journals, but also in the popular press. Perennial grains, particularly Kernza, have been gaining a lot of attention recently.

The article “How farmers can get to the root of climate response – literally” published by Christian Science Monitor includes comments from  researcher Jerry Glover of USAID, Matthew Ryan from Cornell University, and Timothy Crews from the Land Institute about how perennials reduce soil erosion during extreme weather events and sequester carbon. Moreover, National Public Radio published an article featuring Kernza, as several other articles have recently, as a sustainable crop to face climate change.  Comments from bakers, brewers and others in the food industry indicate that there is a demand for Kernza.  Rapid advancements are being made in developing Kernza into a crop that may be adopted by farmers, but it is still a work in progress.  Nonetheless we are excited to see the potential of this grain recognized in popular news articles!

Perennial Grains Activity in Australia

Contributors: Richard Hayes and Matthew Newell

Here is a sampling of recent work on perennial cereals coming out of Australia!
Headlines below link to paper abstracts:






Researcher Matt Newell (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Cowra Agricultural Research and Advisory Station) also wrote the following brief detailing highlights of his recent visit to the Land Institute:

Perennial Grains Activity in Australia

Developing perennial grains offers a novel approach to sustainable agricultural production while maintaining food security. In Australia, research has highlighted the need to return perennials back into the landscape to ameliorate the soil degradation caused by annual cropping. A component of this research, conducted by a team led by NSW DPI, successfully demonstrated the feasibility of perennial grains for Australia. Recent interest in developing cropping systems for the permanent pasture zone in Australia, has indicated the need to develop dual purpose perennial grain crops which could supply a forage source for grazing animals as well as harvestable grain, improving the profitability in a mixed farming enterprise. Perennial grains could offer solutions to the impediments to annual grain production in this zone as well as limit the potential environmental damaged caused through the removal of perennial species.

Recently Matthew Newell from NSW DPI travelled to The Land Institute in Kansas. This provided an opportunity to work more closely with colleagues there, allowing a better understanding of the breath of research undertaken. During this time new crosses with wheat and other perennial grasses, including some Australian native grasses were developed. This is important as by studying these crosses we can learn more about the genetics of the perennial habit. Also it provides an avenue to increase the diversity among perennial cereals currently available, with an aim of creating material that may demonstrate improved adaptability to differing environments.


Alien pollen germinating on wheat stigma. Photo courtesy of Matthew Newell.


Rescued hybrid wheat embryos on media. Photo courtesy of Matthew Newell.

Further studies were completed in investigating biological nitrogen (N) fixation in perennial sorghum and the ability of perennial sunflowers to extract deep soil N. The importance of these experiments is that it provides information on the nitrogen economy in perennial cropping systems. In modern annual cropping systems there is high dependence on synthetic nitrogen inputs which require a considerable amount of energy to produce. Recovery of added synthetic nitrogen in grain farming is at best 50% which leaves a large amount of nutrient that is susceptible to loss with potential to cause environmental damage. By comparison, in a farming system based on perennials, nutrient loss is reduced due to the greater soil volume accessed by roots and better synchrony between crop demand and nutrient availability.


Perennial sorghum for N fixation. Photo courtesy of Matthew Newell.


Soil N extration in perennial sunflower. Photo courtesy of Matthew Newell.

It is hoped that this activity will be beneficial in sourcing funds from both Australian and USA donors to support an international project between TLI and DPI to further perennial grains research.

Kernza Charisma

Intermediate wheatgrass (IWG) is a perennial, cool-season grass found in pastures, and has been bred for large seed size and yield so that it can also be used as a grain crop on farms throughout the Upper Midwest.

IWG has a large root system which helps the plant more efficiently use water and nutrients, and alleviates soil erosion risks.  The dual-use of intermediate wheatgrass as a forage and grain are currently being researched at both the University of Michigan and University of Minnesota, and breeding work continues at the Land Institute in Kansas.  However the trademark intermediate wheatgrass variety Kernza has spread its roots beyond experiment stations, its grain being used to make beer, baked goods, and breakfast goodies.  There’s been a lot of excitement around the culinary utility of Kernza as of late. This recent Washington Post article written by Sandra Black touches on some of this enthusiasm and promise surrounding Kernza grain in various food and beverages. A Huffington Post blog posted last month highlights Long Root Ale, a beer released by Patagonia Provisions and brewed by Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, OR, that is made with Kernza.


Now, who wants to add a little Kernza flour to their holiday pie crusts?

Send in the nutrient scavengers–article from

Research confirms that more than 50% of nitrogen (N) applied to wheat crops is not recovered in plants at harvest. Research also shows the remaining N in many soils across the U.S. washes below the root zone before next year’s crop is planted.

This data applies to regions where farmers traditionally plant one crop per year. This leaves the fields fallow over winter, exposed directly to the elements.

Leaving fertilizer behind has serious financial and environmental consequences. That’s why researchers are exploring ways to more fully utilize the inputs they apply.

“There does not appear to be a single silver bullet on the horizon,” says Lucas Patzek, a Washington State University (WSU) agricultural Extension faculty member who has been studying N use in wheat production. “Instead, we see that the real solution to this problem lies in approaching it from two directions.”

In the short-term, this means developing and promoting cropping systems that integrate a nutrient-scavenging component in their rotation.

Long-term, it means identifying wheat varieties that use N more efficiently. These would function as foundation stock for breeding programs that focus on varieties with improved uptake and lower N requirements.

Read the full article, from an article by Ed Haag, here.


TNT Farm Cover Crop Field Day

When: November 7, 2012 from 9AM – 3PM
Registration beings at 8:30, field tours at 9 sharp. Feature presenters include: Mike Plumer (Researcher/Educator), Terry N Taylor (Host/Farmer), Ralph Upton Jr. (Farmer/Mentor), Barry Fisher (Indiana NRCS), Dan Towery (Ag Conservation Solutions) and AJ Adkins (Starkey Farm Partners). See multiple soil pits, soil cores, field trials of established strategies, planter/seed modification school and cover crop species/variety plots. Registration $15, lunch provided. RSVP at 618-842-7602 ext 3 or 618-897-2713 or email This event is sponsored by Wayne County SWCD and Oregon Ryegrass Commission.

Perennial Vegetables

Perennial Vegetables: Grow More Food With Less Work

Combine permaculture gardening techniques and edible landscaping ingenuity in your garden by growing perennial vegetables. You’ll be surprised by how little work garden perennials require when compared with the work you expend growing annuals.