The Land Institute, a non-profit organization in Salina, Kansas (www.landinstitute.org),has been working on perennial wheat and sorghum crops since 2002. Research is being carried out at their facility in Salina along with joint efforts at some U. S. universities and a partner in Australia.
Jerry Glover, an agro-ecologist from The Land Institute, says plant breeders are tackling the problem from two angles. First, researchers are looking at domesticating intermediate wheatgrass. “In a domestication program, plant breeders are selecting for larger seed size, larger seed yield and other agronomic qualities,” Glover says. “The other route is to make crosses between the annual crop parent and a wild perennial relative.”
Both programs are showing progress. “The wheatgrass program is in a certain sense is ready to go,” he says. “What they’re working on is increasing the seed yield, and that’s going to take some time to get it competitive with annual grain crops.” The grain produced this way apparently has baking characteristics comparable to annual wheat varieties.
Research to cross domestic wheat with intermediate wheatgrass is being conducted at a variety of locations, with hybrid varieties in various stages of development. “At Washington State University, they have good populations of perennial wheat hybrids. They (the hybrids) do very well up there. The same lines here in Kansas don’t survive our summers,” says Glover.
If either of the two breeding programs is ultimately successful, introduction of perennial wheat varieties could be one of the most significant agricultural developments in recent history. However, even if the Land Institute is successful in creating a perennial cereal variety for North America, it won’t be the first. Surya Acharya, a researcher at Agriculture Canada’s Lethbridge facility, has already created the first Canadian cultivar of perennial rye.
“I was fortunate to get some perennial cereal rye that was developed in Germany. It was originally developed for Africa,” he says. From that cultivar, Acharya developed a new variety, AC E-1 PC, intended for use as a forage crop. It has a biomass yield similar to barley, and it’s capable of surviving a Prairie winter.
Perennial rye varieties were originally developed by crossing domestic rye with wild perennial rye, similar to one approach the Land Institute uses in its wheat program.
With experience creating a perennial, including some of his own experimentation with the wheatwheatgrass cross, Acharya is familiar with the problems researchers face at the Land Institute. Creating a new strain of perennial wheat comparable to current annual varieties is a significant challenge, he says. “When you make a cross between wheat and wheatgrass, it looks more like wheatgrass. The yield is not very good. I think it would be quite challenging for breeders to transfer the small chromosome that creates perenniality.”
Dorothy Murrell agrees. The managing director of the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan says that when you make those wide crosses, you will often see a yield drop or other desirable traits diminish. “You have to cross those back,” she says. But both she and Acharya recognize the enormous potential in achieving a high-yielding perennial wheat.
BENEFITS OF PERENNIALS
Perennial cereal varieties could offer significantly increased yields because they would be able to use early spring moisture. “Annuals aren’t very effective at taking advantage of spring runoff,” says Acharya. But perennials are. And they are able to capture much more sunlight, maximizing photosynthesis — and thus growth — throughout a season.
The root systems of perennials also penetrate much deeper, taking moisture and nutrients from more of the soil horizon. That access to more soil nutrients could reduce the amount of inputs required to grow a crop, making farms more efficient — and profitable.
Glover says staff at the Land Institute are confident that plant breeding problems can be overcome, leading to viable perennial wheat varieties. And, he adds, they are making steady progress. But the process will take time. It will likely be a decade or more before any perennial wheat varieties become commercially available.
Scott Garvey is a writer and farmer from Moosomin, Sask.