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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Perennial Wheat

Air Date: Week of

Since the dawn of agriculture, some ten thousand years ago, human beings have relied on domesticated annual plants for food crops. Annuals like corn, soybeans and wheat tend to produce lots of seeds, the grains the we eat. But, a farmer has to plant an annual every year. That can be costly in terms of fuel, labor and equipment. And in some places repeated tilling of the earth causes serious soil erosion. Soil erosion is a constant concern on the dryland farms of eastern Washington state, one of the nation's leading wheat producing regions. Now researchers at Washington State University are working to develop a perennial wheat crop one that would come back year after year, and help hold the soil in place. Becky Rumsey reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, human beings have relied heavily on domesticated annual plants. Corn, soybeans, and wheat tend to produce lots of food, but a farmer has to plant them every year. That costs time and money and often leads to soil erosion. Erosion is a constant concern on the dry land wheat farms in eastern Washington. Researchers at Washington State University are working to develop a perennial strain of wheat that would come back year after year and help hold the soil in place. Becky Rumsey reports.

(Sound of tractors, or threshers)

RUMSEY: Just outside of Pullman at Washington State University's Stillman Research Farm, plant breeders harvest seed from small plots. Here, Dr. Steven Jones is testing more than 1,000 types of wheat. They're the progeny of a perennial wheat grass and a commercial annual wheat.

JONES: This is one of the main perennial types that we're using as a parent. At this point it's somewhat adapted in terms that it can go through our winters well. You'll see that it's nearly 5 feet tall, though, and the straw strength is okay but not great. And you'll see that it's quite a bit later than the other types of wheats. So it has traits that we want to get rid of as well as traits that we want to capture.

RUMSEY: Perennial wheat isn't new. Many wild varieties of wheat grasses are plants that produce some seed, but also regrow year after year from long- lived root structures. As far back as the 1930s plant breeders recognized that a perennial crop could save farmers time and money. But efforts to develop perennial wheats were always shelved because they produced only a fraction of the edible seeds annuals did. But these days high yields aren't the only priority.

JONES: The main thrust of this program is to protect the soil, to reduce the soil erosion. And any way that we can keep the soil covered will help stem erosion.

(Wind through the wheat)

RUMSEY: Here on the arid Columbia Plateau, 50,000 square miles that stretch east from the Columbia River into Idaho, wind erosion is a fact of life. Just walk through any fallow field and you can see why. Despite some wheat stubble, fluffs of dirt rise up around your legs like clouds of brown talcum powder.

MOORE: This country was formed with volcanic ash and it's a very light silt loam type soil. And so, if it's exposed to the wind, it's going to move. When we get high enough winds it's going to move and there's nothing you can do about it.

RUMSEY: Jim Moore raises wheat on land his great-grandfather homesteaded near Kahlotus. On dust storm days winds of 40 to 60 miles per hour sweep dirt from farms and carry it miles away to cities like Spokane, where it contributes to air quality problems. But like other dry land farmers, Mr. Moore has to leave some of his land bare to make the most of the 7 to 9 inches of rainfall he gets in a year.

MOORE: The farming operation is what is known around here as a summer fallow rotation. Half of the farm each year is left idle and kept bare of weeds, so that we can pick up enough rainfall. The following year we can raise a crop.

(A vehicle motor. Man: "When's seeding time?" Man 2: "I don't know. Pretty soon, isn't it?" Man 3: "We're going to start the first, I think. Monday." Man 2: "Are you?")

RUMSEY: Jim Moore visits with a neighbor who's greasing up his rod weeder. The 80-foot-wide contraption drags a rotating metal rod through fallow ground, tearing thirsty weeds out by the roots. But every time a farmer turns the earth, it's more vulnerable to water loss and wind erosion.

MOORE: And if we had the perennial wheat, this would be completely eliminated. We wouldn't use this piece of equipment, maybe once every 7 or 8 years, 4 or 5 years, depending on how long the perennial wheat would last. So we might use the rod weeder and we may never use a rod weeder ever again. And it wouldn't hurt my feelings if we didn't.

KRONSTAD: If they can achieve a perennial wheat plant that will be economical for the growers to produce, then I think that's fantastic. And I would certainly welcome that breakthrough. But we have to be realistic.

RUMSEY: Dr. Warren Kronstad is a wheat breeder and professor at Oregon State University. He supports perennial research. But he says developing a perennial wheat crop for the Pacific Northwest is a long shot.

KRONSTAD: The genes for the perennial habit may be linked to some undesirable genes. And in doing so, it's going to be very difficult to break up those linkages and develop perennial wheat, then, which are free from the defects and only have the good genetic factor, such as the perennial genes.

RUMSEY: In Pullman, Dr. Jones agrees it will be a challenge to cross distant cousins and come up with a wheat that's as good as the soft white wheat Washington's Asian markets demand for noodles and cakes. As crops, perennials can have undesirable characteristics, like seed heads that shatter or hulls that are hard to remove. But the Washington State University researchers are confident they can get just a few key perennial genes to combine with wheat chromosomes.


RUMSEY: It's unlikely that a perennial will ever match the quantity and quality of annual wheat that thousands of combines gather and pour into trucks each summer. Next to Kansas, eastern Washington is the second largest wheat producing area in the nation. In late August, trucks dump hundreds of bushels into grain elevators and railroads move tons of wheat to the coast.

(Railroad trains on tracks)

RUMSEY: But perennial wheat may not have to compete with established annuals right away. One of its most promising applications may turn out to be the 600,000 acres of Washington's most erodible land that's coming out of the Federal Conservation Reserve Program. In the so-called CRP, farmers receive government payments for taking erosion-prone land out of cultivation. Instead, they are encouraged to grow plants like grasses for ground cover and wildlife habitat.

(Footfalls through dry grass)

MOORE: This is tall wheat grass, encrusted wheat grass is what the CRP was, and you can see the matting of the dead grass and the live grasses.

RUMSEY: Jim Moore had 400 acres in the CRP, but none of them were re-enrolled this year. In fact, 80% of the acres Washington State submitted were rejected because of a recent overhaul of the program. Without CRP payments, farmers like Jim Moore are under more pressure to plow up their most erodible land to generate income.

MOORE: That's why I'm so excited about a perennial wheat that we can seed all of our erosion areas to. And you know, if I got half a crop, would I be happy? Certainly, because then, when I only take a crop every 2 years so that comes back to a normal crop. And I don't have to rod weed, I don't have to plow, I don't have to seed. So maybe I can even afford a third of a crop, if it was every year.

(Traffic sounds; fade to crickets)

RUMSEY: From horizon to horizon, much of eastern Washington today is like a giant rolling quilt, with alternating swaths of golden grain and the dark bare dirt of fallow fields. In the distance, dust plumes rise like whale blows in an ocean, indicating where a combine or rod weeder is at work. Driving through this landscape, one wonders how it might look if growers were using perennial wheat.

JONES: We see it in very specific, highly-erodible areas, within fields and between fields. Maybe ridge tops. Real waterways, things like this. Eventually we do see large fields or large acreages of solid perennial wheat. We'll start out small in the most extreme areas first.

RUMSEY: Dr. Jones knows his work is at odds with thousands of years of agriculture. But he's confident he can get the genetics to work, and he plans to have perennial varieties for farmers like Jim Moore to try out within a few years. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey.



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