Seed it once, then sell everything except the combine and just keep harvesting year after year.
It might not work out quite that way, but a perennial grain crop that can withstand cold Prairie winters is a little closer to reality for Canadian farmers.
University of Manitoba perennial crop breeder Doug Cattani has been at work since 2010 at the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm here, overseeing plots of intermediate wheatgrass, wild sunflowers, perennial cereal ryegrass, and an assortment of other native plants. He says intermediate wheatgrass is now showing the most promise for earliest commercial availability.
All the crops Cattani is studying share the common trait of being perennial relatives of key food crops. But as he’s made his crosses and selections these past four years, it’s become clear some are worth pursuing and some not. For example, the program for perennial cereal ryegrass is basically on the shelf now. The disease problems they discovered are more than their time and resources can accommodate.
“The wide cross that we made to generate the materials led to excessive ergot,” Cattani said. “It became something that would require a lot more work than we are currently able to put in.”
On the other hand, his now completed selections of intermediate wheatgrass material not only have shown they can survive three successive Prairie winters, but produce consistent grain yields.
These new materials are hardier, have larger seeds, and are more productive for longer periods than the forage varieties of wheatgrass currently familiar to farmers, Cattani said. The seed is about one-third the size of wheat but has nearly twice the amount of protein.
“We’ve got a long way to go on the agronomics but I think we know now that we have a product that is adapted to Manitoba and hopefully Western Canada,” he said.
If they can develop the wheatgrass into a perennial crop, it would break new ground for food production.
Breeding for perennial ability is like what primitive farmers did when selecting seed for food production, said Cattani. The goal today is to find ways to grow food that will reduce the need for fertilizers, herbicides, and annual seed purchase.
The environmental benefits of perennial grain crops are many and varied, said Cattani, noting they essentially serve as native grasslands once did, soaking up excess water, reducing erosion, and building soil organic matter.
At the Carman site, researchers are also experimenting with polycultures to see what’s doable for growing two or more crops at once. They’re inter-seeding with legumes including sweet and white clover and alfalfa, plus a native prairie turnip to find ways to supply nitrogen to these crops. Other ongoing research by a graduate student is looking at the impact of animal grazing on regrowth after harvests.
There are good reasons to focus on intermediate wheatgrass, said Cattani. Farmers are already familiar with it as a forage crop, and that adds to its potential for commercial viability sooner than other crops.
“Our forage seed industry has produced intermediate wheatgrass in the past and we do have some seed companies that understand its growth and harvesting,” he said. “We’re not completely in the dark on this.”
Manitoba farmers are already growing intermediate wheatgrass as a forage seed crop and getting 14 to 15 bushels per acre. What their work is showing now is that as a perennial grain crop they’ll be able to produce seed beyond one year, he said.
“We want this to be a perennial grain, we don’t want it to be a hay crop, that is, getting one good seed harvest and then it’s basically a hayfield. We’re trying to avoid that.”
It doesn’t have the gluten properties of wheat, so it won’t be a wheat replacement, he added.
“As I foresee it being released, it’ll be a product that can be consumed by humans, but maybe blended with wheat in a number of applications.”
Researchers hope to have enough seed to proceed to agronomic trials by next year, Cattani said.
In other words, they’ve reached a stage where he can say he’s “a little more optimistic” about the time frame it’ll take to have a viable crop to grow. But this is still very early days.
“Optimistically, I’d say we’re still looking at 15 to 20 years down the road.”
CORRECTION, Aug. 31: The crop photo at mid-article was incorrectly credited in a previous online version. The photo appears here courtesy of researcher Lee DeHaan of The Land Institute, a perennial crop research organization based at Salina, Kansas. We regret the error.